Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – KANSAS CITY, KS – Dressed in the Roush Fenway Racing, Wyndham Rewards livery Matt Kenseth showed up at Kansas Speedway Friday ready to turn his very first laps in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car since the November, 2017 season finale.
The former series champion, 46, addressed the media shortly before his season-opening practice session – the only one he will get prior to qualifying for Saturday night’s KC Masterpiece 400 (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
In a typically low-key, understated manner the two-time Kansas winner managed expectation for his first time on track this season, now with the Roush team he started his Cup career with in 2001 and had left for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013.
“I don’t have any expectations for the weekend, to be honest with you, because I just don’t know,” Kenseth conceded. “I haven’t been in the car yet and I don’t know how fast we’ll get up to speed. What are the things we’re gonna fight, that type of thing, so I don’t really know.
“I came into this weekend pretty much with no expectations, just kind of open-minded and take it one practice at a time, one session at a time, that type of thing, and go from there.”
There is plenty of positive backstory here at Kansas for Kenseth. His two appearances in Victory Lane were an impressive if unusual back-to-back combination: the Fall, 2012 race in his last year with Roush and the Spring, 2013 race in his first year with Gibbs. He also has earned three pole positions at the track and his 106.5 driver rating is second only to Jimmie Johnson here.
So in many ways, the 1.5-mile Kansas high banks looks like the perfect place for Kenseth to make his 2018 season debut. He was 28th fastest in opening practice Friday, and 22nd best in a 10-lap average.
“Just trying to get a little bit caught up an re-acclimated there with the system and the people and what’s changed and that kind of thing, and been anxious about today and getting back in the car,” Kenseth allowed. “I’m hoping everybody can get through tech and we can get on track in time. There’s not a lot of practice today, so I’m pretty anxious about getting in the car and seeing where we’re at and what my comfort level is, where we are on speed and what we’ve got to work on for tomorrow, that type of thing, so I’m just ready to get going.”
Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, will be splitting time in the No. 6 Ford Fusion with Trevor Bayne who steered the car the first 11 races of the season. Kenseth confirmed he will drive for the next four races after Kansas – the non-points All-Star race at Charlotte next week, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte over Memorial Day weekend, then at Pocono and Michigan. How the two will share the car the remainder of the season hasn’t been revealed yet.
When legendary team owner Jack Roush announced Kenseth was re-joining the team, he said he has high expectations about what the former champion could bring to re-energize the two-car operation that’s two wins last year by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Daytona and Talladega were the first since 2014.
Kenseth realizes the great hope Roush and the team have in him. And, he said, he has dearly missed being a part of the sport.
“I would say the fans and the competition, the thing you miss the most is always the competition,” Kenseth said. “That’s why we all started racing on Friday and Saturday nights with a couple hundred people in the stands against all the rest of the drivers is because you like to compete. I think when you’re not competing, if there’s one thing you could pick out, that’s probably the part you miss the most.
“As far as how the last six months have been, they’ve been great honestly. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better period in my life, so that’s been really good.”
“I feel good about the direction that Roush Fenway Racing has taken the last couple years,” he said. “Certainly, all the Fords are very competitive this year. The 17 [Stenhouse] has shown a lot of speed on and off. You don’t see it necessarily in all the finishes, but certainly they’ve been better, so, like I said, I feel like we’re headed in the right direction.
“I don’t have any expectations necessarily for this weekend. I think the goals and expectations will probably continue to adjust once I get through this week and kind of see where we’re at and evaluate from there.”