CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Matt Kenseth came up short of his ultimate goal in 2013, but in many ways, it was still the best year of his racing career.
The 41-year-old veteran led the Sprint Cup Series with a career-best seven wins. He also scored a career-best three poles in his first year behind the wheel of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
He led 1,783 laps, another career high, and for the first time ever, his average starting spot (8.7) was in the single digits. The only goal he missed was the series title, finishing 19 points behind six-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
“Certainly, I was a little disappointed at the end of the year because we didn’t win the championship,” he said Thursday at the 32nd annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. “I didn’t figure out how out get it done and win it. Two races to go and we’re tied in the points, so I feel like in a way, I let some people down. I feel disappointed about that, but on the other hand, I don’t know if the year could have been much better. I’m proud of what we did and accomplished.”
Kenseth drove car owner Jack Roush’s Fords the first 13 years of his career and the combination produced two Daytona 500 wins and the 2003 NASCAR championship. Still, five wins were his previous best numbers for a season prior to last year’s move to Gibbs.
He realized early on there was something special with the new combination.
“When we went to our first test in Charlotte, about my third run, I knew it was going to be good,” Kenseth said. “That night, I spent a lot of time with (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliffe). I knew right then. I couldn’t have predicted how we would run or how we would finish, but driving those cars for the first time, working with Jason and the engineering group, seeing how they went about things, I knew it right away.”
Kenseth now has 31 victories in what will certainly be a Hall of Fame career. He has nine appearances in the 10 years of NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, trailing only Johnson who has made the playoffs all 10 years.
The consistency has been a mark of Kenseth’s career.
Last year, he added the big wins with four of them came on the intermediate tracks where the Toyotas seemed to have a clear advantage over the Fords and Chevrolets. Kenseth pointed out, however, the Gibbs team was strong at other places as well with 12 Cup Series wins as an organization.
“We felt like we were well-rounded,” he said. “We won a couple of short-track races and Kyle (Busch) won on a road course. We didn’t win at a superspeedway, but we led a lot of laps and were in position to win a couple of times.”
Included in last season’s bounty was a win in Bristol’s night race. It was Kenseth’s third career win in the world’s most prestigious short-track race.
After getting behind on a pit stop, his crew chief made the decision to leave Kenseth on the track with old tires when others pitted with 60 laps to go. The strategy worked as Kenseth held off Kasey Kahne over the final 15 laps for the victory.
“It is always a big race,” he said. “I made a dumb mistake on pit road, but Jason did a good job, making a crazy call. We just barely had enough to hang on and win that thing, so it was an exciting night. It’s always fun to race at Bristol. It’s always a fun, exciting atmosphere, a great race to win.”