Only Jeff Gordon had run in more consecutive races at Texas Motor Speedway going into last fall’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race than Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth has been a staple at Texas since the turn of the century, consistently running well and being in the hunt. But Kenseth was noticeably absent for last November’s AAA Texas 500, sitting at home and serving a suspension for his actions the previous week at Martinsville Speedway.
Kenseth intentionally wrecked Joey Logano in a retaliation move, and NASCAR responded by slapping Kenseth with a two-race suspension. The following week, his active starts streak at Texas came to an end at 26.
“I mean, yeah, obviously I noticed,” Kenseth said last week in front of his hauler at Martinsville Speedway. “I’d been at every race for 16 years at Texas, so to miss a race was definitely odd.”
It’s something that you’ll look back on maybe when you’re done and those certain statistics are things to be proud of. But when you’re still driving, you don’t really look at it.
Matt Kenseth on his suspension last year
Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had started every race at TMS since 2000, trailing only Gordon who had been there since the inaugural race in 1997. Those types of streaks don’t seem to matter to drivers during their careers.
“It’s something that you’ll look back on maybe when you’re done and those certain statistics are things to be proud of,” said Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Toyota. “But when you’re still driving, you don’t really look at it.”
Kenseth will certainly have plenty to look back on in what has been an overshadowed racing career. He has 36 career wins and a championship, but doesn’t have the name recognition of a Earnhardt Jr. or Jimmie Johnson.
Matt Kenseth is a Hall of Fame driver, a sure Hall of Famer. He’s the guy who I would point to and say, ‘There’s your cerebral racer.’
TMS president Eddie Gossage
Still, there’s no question that Kenseth is among the best drivers the sport has seen. He has a strong history at Texas, too, with two wins and the second-most top-10 finishes (17) in the track’s history.
“Matt Kenseth is a Hall of Fame driver, a sure Hall of Famer,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “He’s the guy who I would point to and say, ‘There’s your cerebral racer.’ He can ride along all day long, you don’t think about him, but when you get down to the last 50 laps of the race, there he is.
“He’s the guy that just has the knack and the knowledge to put it all together.”
Given that, Gossage acknowledged that the Martinsville incident with Kenseth seemed out of character for a guy who doesn’t make many headlines in that way.
But Kenseth hasn’t seemed too remorseful about taking out Logano. After all, it’s something that Kenseth believed had to be done.
Logano essentially ruined Kenseth’s championship hopes a few weeks earlier at Kansas Speedway by causing him to spin out in the closing laps. That, however, was deemed “quintessential” racing by NASCAR chairman Brian France.
Kenseth, meanwhile, was nine laps down when he took Logano out at Martinsville, which prompted the harsh punishment.
Kenseth had to watch the Texas race from his home and wasn’t shy in expressing his feelings when Johnson passed Brad Keselowski in the closing laps for the win.
“Good work @JimmieJohnson! Textbook pass for the win at the end of the race when someone is trying to take your lane,” Kenseth posted to his Twitter account at the time.
Then he took a subtle shot at France with the hashtag “#quintessential.”
I think he still feels like he did what he had to do and he doesn’t think he was punished fairly. I don’t think he’s shown any remorse.
Eddie Gossage on Matt Kenseth
Months have passed since that incident and Kenseth has moved on. He and Gossage haven’t discussed the incident in their latest conversations.
“I think he still feels like he did what he had to do and he doesn’t think he was punished fairly,” Gossage said. “I don’t think he’s shown any remorse.”
Kenseth certainly wasn’t apologizing for the incident last week at Martinsville, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has shifted his focus to the 2016 season.
He has gotten off to a disappointing start with only one top-10 finish in the season’s first six races.
“It’s been frustrating, but I feel like we’ve been running OK from a competitive standpoint,” Kenseth said. “We just haven’t turned up some finishes.”
Kenseth came in 15th Sunday at Martinsville, but seemed encouraged by the progress his team had made with flawless pit stops and producing a fast car.
“Hopefully we’ll start getting some finishes soon,” Kenseth said.
Maybe a return to Texas will get it done.