As the regular season continues to wind down, the playoff picture is still very volatile, with three drivers currently in on points, while others on the outside looking in try to win a race and lock themselves in.
Heading into Bristol, Matt Kenseth was one of the drivers inside the top-16 as a result of his points position, but the 2003 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion would face his biggest battle in his quest to make the playoffs.
The driver that would be his biggest challenge of the night when it comes to his playoff life? Ironically, it was Erik Jones, the driver that is replacing him behind the wheel of the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
The rookie had the race of his life, leading 260 laps and had he held on for the win, it would have been Kenseth that would have suffered the most, as his points advantage over 17th would have fallen into the single digits with just two races remaining before the playoffs begin.
Luckily for Kenseth, Jones would give up the lead late to Kyle Busch, and he was able to hold onto fourth place when the checkered flag flew, boosting his points advantage to 61 points over Clint Bowyer in 17th.
Starting the night in fifth, Kenseth was a constant presence in the top-five throughout the marathon 500 lap race, keeping the leaders within sight as the laps ticked away. Close to the end of the second stage, Kenseth assumed the race lead under caution and was able to lead the next 11 laps to score the stage win.
Though he would lose the lead when pitting under the stage break, Kenseth still challenged his replacement for track position throughout the final stage, but eventually fell back as a result of a tight handling condition on his car.
“We had the opportunity to get there,” he added. “We had good restarts. We were really really good early in the race, ten lap runs and Jason (Ratcliff) made good adjustments and got it where we were good on a 50-lap run. After that we were just junk. It just wouldn’t turn off the corner and I was just a dead dog. Trying to pace it early that run and with only one set of tires left we had to stay out. It was just too long a run for the way our car was set up. We were really good on restarts, really good short runs, long runs just couldn’t get it done.”
With an off weekend ahead before Darlington and Richmond to round out the regular season, Kenseth remains upbeat, even as his future past this season is still undetermined.
On Friday, Kenseth noted that he was “not worried about it even really one percent anymore” and just wanted to focus on finishing out the regular season on a high note and hope to be able to make the playoffs. Following Saturday night’s race, Kenseth still had that attitude, even cracking jokes about his battle with Jones late in the race.
He followed that up by noting how happy he is in his life, even with all the uncertainty in his racing career going forward.
“My life couldn’t be much better,” Kenseth added. “I’ve never really been in a better place. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. There’s more to life than racing.”
“Yeah, I wish it kind of maybe would have went down a different way or maybe I had another year or two there. That’s not the way it worked out. I think everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason. It will all become clear.”
“I’m pretty happy. I’m not really worried about it. Certainly, I wanted to win tonight, though. I’d be happier if I would have won.”