Compared with 2013, when Matt Kenseth picked up seven wins and finished as runner-up in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, this year just hasn't really sparked into life for the 42-year-old from Wisconsin.
Still without a win this season, Kenseth had been mildly surprised to still be in the running in the Eliminator 8 Round of the new-format Chase play-offs. ON paper he looked like he was still in with a strong chance of making it all the way through to next weekend's title decider at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but in his heart Kenseth had known that he was firmly up against it in his efforts to break into the final four.
"After last week, I knew that that was going to be tough," he admitted, referring to late contact in the race at Texas that had forced him to make an unscheduled pit stop for repairs which had left him in 25th place at the line. "I wish we would have made it in, but last week was disastrous, so it was fun being here with a shot — just wish we could have come through.
"We exceeded our expectations here. It was great run for us and I'm proud of the guys for being third. We just have to get faster," he added. "We were probably going to have to come here and win, and we just didn't have enough speed to do that."
The problem was that neither he nor anyone else in the field had what it took to beat Kevin Harvick to the chequered flag at Phoenix International Raceway, a track that the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has owned in recent years with four wins out of the last six races in Arizona.
"We were no match for the #4," agreed Kenseth. "He's been lights out here the last couple years or the last few years, whatever. But other than that, we were pretty good, so we had a good short-run speed, good restarts.
"I thought we did everything right, good strategy, good pit tops, all that stuff. Best we've ran here in a while. So overall, it was a great day for us. It just wasn't good enough to get us to the next round."
Kenseth admitted that this year as a whole was very different to past seasons, where he'd been consistently winning races and felt that he'd deserved to be in the running for the title.
"It's felt different to me. From my side of it, I feel like we haven't necessarily performed at a championship level," he said. "I think my team has in the pit stops and the strategy and the car prep and the morale, all that has been there, but we haven't had the speed in our race cars.
"[Last year] we had the most wins, won the first two races off the bat, and man, it was a stressful 10 weeks. I thought we ran excellent. We had one bad race and lost a championship," he recalled. "Here it's just had a different feel. We ran mediocre at Chicago, wrecked out at Loudon, ran good at Dover and made it to the next round. I can't remember all those races, but we had one bad race, I think, and still made it to the next round. Then of course Martinsville wasn't great and Texas was really, really bad.
"Definitely disappointed we didn't make it through but it's just been so up and down and our downs weren't good enough and our highs weren't high enough to make it into the next round. These guys did a great job, this is the best we've ran here in a long time so I'm looking forward to Homestead next week."
"To still be in it all the way to the second-to-last race was a good feeling to keep getting another shot," he added. "I wish we'd had one more."
Although Kenseth is out of contention for the title, he'll still be racing for the win next weekend at Homestead while his JGR team mate Denny Hamlin remains in the running for the championship.
"Fortunately Denny is in so hopefully Denny can go take it home at Homestead," Kenseth agreed.
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