Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – CONCORD, NC – Matt Kenseth hoisted his very first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup trophy at Charlotte Motor Speedway following the 2000 Coca-Cola 600. It’s been 18 years, a series championship and 38 more wins since that time, but Kenseth is hopeful the longtime good vibe here will be a positive sign of things to come in Sunday night’s running of the race.
Kenseth rejoined the Roush-Fenway Racing Ford team this month after five seasons driving a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Kenseth, however, was driving for the newly-selected NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Roush when he won at Charlotte those years ago (once in the 600 and once in the Fall 500). He was hired by the team again to help in re-energizing and re-focusing the storied organization.
The veteran is driving a part-time schedule, sharing time in the No. 6 Ford Fusion with Trevor Bayne. This weekend’s start will be only his second points race of the 2018 season. He started 35th and finished 36th at Kansas Speedway two weeks. He won the pole position for last week’s Monster Energy All-Star race at Charlotte and finished 14th in the non-points event.
“We’re not very far into this year,” Kenseth cautioned anyone bringing too-lofty expectations to the 600 weekend.
“Kansas was a struggle the whole weekend. Last weekend was very unique, running restrictor plates and all that stuff at Charlotte and the All-Star format and stuff, so that was kind of different.
“I’m glad to be able to get on the track and get a full practice in (at Charlotte). … I feel like we learned a couple things today so far and hopefully we can get qualified respectable and then get back to work Saturday on race trim.”
Kenseth’s return has been a steep and immediate learning curve, back in the driver’s seat after an 11-week season-opening sabbatical. He was immediately challenged with two radically different refreshers in the 1.5-mile Kansas track and then the unique restrictor plate, special format of the All-Star race.
This week’s 600-miler should give him plenty of opportunity to find his groove and truly start to work on the greater task he’s accepted – helping the Roush team regain the prominence it had when Kenseth won a Cup championship.
“It’s still pretty new and there’s a lot of different things to try to work through, at least, what I’d like to work through and just trying to keep getting a better feel for it every week and kind of try to give my opinions, for what their worth,” Kenseth said. “What I feel like we could do different and better and what we’re doing good. It’s that type of thing.”
The No. 6 team has only four top-five finishes in the last four seasons and is eager to see if a change in the driver lineup can boost the competitive flair. Kenseth qualified 17th Thursday night. And he comes into the race ranked among the top-five in all major statistical categories at Charlotte, from average finish (13.577 – fifth best) to driver rating (96.1 – fourth best).
And in addition to his winning resume here (two wins and two pole positions), Kenseth also has victories at both of the next two tracks where he’s scheduled to compete – at Pocono, Pa. (one win) and at Michigan (three wins).
“I’ve had a lot of time to train the last six months, so I’m not worried about the physical aspect of it,” Kenseth said. “I’m more worried about trying to keep up, get our cars a little faster so we can first of all stay on the lead lap, second of all, hopefully start moving forward and getting kind of in the mix and start to go get forward.”