By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway has multiple storylines and one of them is the return of 2003 NASCAR Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth, who’ll start his tenure at Chip Ganassi Racing by piloting the No. 42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE for the rest of the 2020 season.
The ride offer was well publicized after owner Chip Ganassi fired Kyle Larson due to using a racial slur on a Twitch stream last month. Since then, Kenseth is focused on being smart during the 293-lap race as it’s the only thing he has in mind to think about, not Wednesday’s race nor the two races at Charlotte Motor Speedway nor even beyond 2020.
“I’m not really looking too far beyond Sunday, to be totally honest with you. Certainly, the learning curve is going to be steep,” said Kenseth. “I know being out of the car that long, starting with a different team and piling on top of not being able to practice for the foreseeable future, or testing and anything like that, is going to be very challenging.”
Focused as he may be, Kenseth admitted he’s really excited to make another return to the sport as he last raced in NASCAR two years when he made 15 starts for Roush Fenway Racing and co-shared the No. 6 Ford Mustang with Trevor Bayne.
Kenseth has run a few races since which includes an eighth Slinger Nationals victory after narrowly beating Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series and fellow Wisconsin racer Ty Majeski last July.
“I’m just as excited as I’ve been to go racing in many, many years,” said Kenseth. “So, I’m really looking forward to getting to the track. I really like this group of guys, the cars look nice, the Camaro looks like they’re really fast, so I’m really looking forward to it. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity, I just know that it’s going to be a big challenge. I’m going to have to work hard and do my best to try and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Adapting to a new team does have its adjustments as Kenseth will leave it up to his No. 42 team on getting the job done as he’ll have Chad Johnston on top of the pit box and Tony Raines guiding him to get around Darlington.
The 2013 winner also knows what the No. 42 car is capable of doing performance wise as Larson finished third and second the last two years at the 1.366-mile circuit.
“Chad assures me it’s going to be perfect (laughs). I mean, yes and no. I leave that job to him, the engineers and everyone here at CGR,” Kenseth on his new team. “They’ve ran really well at Darlington in the last two years, so I’m thinking they’re probably not going to veer too far off of that.
“I think you’ll run those first thirty laps and you’ll get kind of the extended caution there to be able to make some small adjustments and go from there. So, I don’t think it’s really different from what they ran there last year or maybe even the year before.”
Although Kenseth has an idea how his car could pan out during the early portions of the 400-mile race, he also knows that he isn’t alone as far as eliminating driving rusts is concern. That’s because Sunday will be the first Cup race since Phoenix back on March 8. Therefore, he isn’t sure how the overall racing action will be like.
“Nobody has been in a car in a while; certainly, it’s been longer for me. I think the biggest difference for me, also, is that I haven’t driven these racecars or for this team. So, there are a few more unknowns,” Kenseth on the racing expectations from the 40-car grid. “I’m not sure how exactly everything is going to feel and all that kind of stuff. There is certainly a little bit of anxiety for those first few corners to kind of get rolling and get used to things.
“At the same time, everybody is going to be ready to pounce. Restarts are very important, track position is very important and you always want to get what you can get when you can get it. So, I don’t expect people to be taking it real easy or maybe giving you a bunch of extra room or anything like that.
“You certainly don’t expect any kind of special treatment. You know everyone is going to be out there ready to pounce on whatever spot they can, so you just have to be smart. Especially for me, just be smart and get through those first bunch of laps to get in a rhythm, get a little bit of room to move around, breath, get kind of acclimated, and go from there.”
Live coverage of Sunday’s race commences on FOX at 3:30 pm EST. Erik Jones is the most recent Darlington winner.