Kyle Busch, left, Jason Ratcliff, center, and Matt Kenseth talk prior to the Pure Michigan 400. Photo courtesy of Toyota Racing.
Racers spend a good deal of their time looking for ways to stay one step ahead of their competition.
But ultimately, auto racing always comes down to a never-ending race against time.
Whether it’s discovering a way to shave a tenth of a second off of a pit stop or finding a line that will get a car around an oval a few hundredths of a second quicker, racers are acutely trying to beat a clock that never stops ticking.
Matt Kenseth is well aware of just how fast that clock can move. It has been 10 years since his dominant 2003 campaign, a season that ended with him capturing the Sprint Cup championship.
“Time doesn’t slow down for anybody,” Kenseth said. “It’s crazy how fast it goes by, that’s for sure.”
In some ways, it seems like only yesterday that the 41-year-old driver was a 28-year-old rookie learning the ropes at Roush Racing. Kenseth had a chuckle as he remembered conversations he had with his mentor Mark Martin, who he’ll be racing against in the IRWIN Tools Night Race on Saturday.
“Mark was my age right now,” Kenseth said. “When he was my age, he was like, ‘Man, I don’t want this much longer.’ A lot of things were stressing him out. As time went on, obviously he changed his outlook. He kind of looked around and (decided) that’s what he loved.”
While Martin, still racing at 54, has managed to cheat Father Time, Kenseth doesn’t see himself following the same path.
“I do not see myself racing in the Cup series at 54, like Mark is,” Kenseth said. “I don’t think there’s many people that will.”
With that in mind, Kenseth currently finds himself in excellent position to win another Cup championship. After leaving Jack Roush’s operation at the end of last season to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has won four races so far this year and figures to challenge Jimmie Johnson for the title once the Chase begins next month.
The only other time that Kenseth racked up four wins before the Chase was back in 2006, a season he remembers as an opportunity lost. Kenseth held the points lead with three races remaining, but he was unable to hold off Johnson, who won the first of his five straight Cup titles that year.
“That was a really disappointing year,” Kenseth said. “We had a couple things go wrong, and honestly, that’s all it took. And then right down the stretch, the last four or five races when we really needed it, we didn’t run good enough.
“So the races we did run good enough to win, we didn’t capitalize, and at the end of the year, we did everything great as a team as far as pit stops and strategy and just didn’t have the speed. It was disappointing.”
Ironically enough, speed is a concern around the JGR camp in the wake of a disappointing performance at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday. After dialing down the horsepower earlier in the summer to address some durability issues, Toyota Racing Development chose Michigan as the place to dial it back up and see where the Toyota engines stacked up against the competition.
The results were disappointing as only one Toyota cracked the top 14. But Kenseth, who finished 15th, said it isn’t time to panic yet.
“We were all really far off on speed at Michigan for whatever reason,” he said, adding that other factors such as setups could have also played a role. “We dug into that really deep (on Monday) and hopefully we’ll come up with some answers and get that improved for when the Chase starts.”
As for Kenseth’s approach to the Chase, that hasn’t changed much since the playoff format began back in 2004.
“It’s an easy formula,” he said. “You get the most points you can every week. The way to get the most points every week is to lead the most laps and win the race.
“So I think you go in every week with the idea of trying to win and hopefully you don’t have a real bad day or a big mistake or a failure that gives you a terrible finish.”
The formula may be simple, but performing at a high enough level to win a championship is far from easy. Luckily crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the rest of the No. 20 team, they have one of the hardest working drivers on the circuit behind the wheel of their car.
No matter the challenge, Kenseth’s answer usually involves rolling up his sleeves and digging a little bit deeper. Over the course of a nine-minute interview on Tuesday, Kenseth used the word “work” over a dozen times.
“I’ve never seen anything fix itself before, so you’ve always got to keep an open mind,” he said. “You have to work on it as hard as you can and hopefully get it turned around.”
While Kenseth champions hard work, he’s careful not to put too much pressure on himself in the process.
He admitted to pushing himself hard to win early this season in order to give his new team a shot of confidence, but as the final act of his career unfolds, he is careful not to overdo it with a good shot at another title in his sights.
“As far as winning a championship goes, I mean, yeah, you know if you’re going to win another one, you’d better win another one,” he said. “But for me, I try to leave my pressure the same all the time. I think when you start trying harder than what your hardest already is, I think that’s when you open yourself up to mistakes. So I just try to keep the same approach and work as hard as I can at it.”
No matter how this year’s pursuit of a title turns out, Kenseth isn’t even close to viewing this season as his last hurrah.
He plans to stay sharp and compete for as long as he can.
How does he plan to do that? You guessed it — hard work.
“I’m only 41 and I feel great right now,” he said. “I think I’m an asset to my team and I’m going to continue to work as hard as I can to stay as competitive as I can to try to win races and win championships.”