AVONDALE, Ariz. — Matt Kenseth had one of those rare seasons in which everything seemed to go right every time he got behind the wheel of his car.
Until the one day he couldn’t afford for anything to go wrong.
Kenseth had one of his poorest performances of the season Sunday, finishing 23rd at Phoenix International Raceway to allow Jimmie Johnson to seize control of the championship race.
Johnson, who started the day up seven points in the standings, finished third behind Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne to pad his lead to 28 points.
The five-time champion goes to next Sunday’s season finale at Homestead needing to finish 23rd or better to win the title.
Kenseth, who won his only championship 10 years ago, gave what sounded like a concession speech following his disappointing day.
“Of course I’m disappointed — we go there basically without a shot to win,” Kenseth said. “On the other hand, I couldn’t be happier and more proud of my team and, man, this has been the best year of my racing career. We hoped to go down to Homestead and race for it on performance. On the other hand, I’m extremely happy and really, really proud of my team.
“There’s not a car out here I’d rather be driving. We’ve had just an amazing, incredible season and we’ve still got one week left. So I’m really thankful for them putting me in a car and everybody who has given me this opportunity.”
Johnson, who had a mechanical failure in last year’s season finale and finished 36th, wasn’t ready to claim the title following his workmanlike performance at Phoenix.
“We’re heading into Homestead in the position we want to be in,” Johnson said. “I’ll have to go down there and run 400 miles. It’s far from over. You’ve got to finish that race. Although we have a nice cushion, we still have to go down there and take care of business.”
Harvick won at Phoenix for the second consecutive year, capitalizing when Carl Edwards ran out of gas coming to the white flag. But all eyes were on Kenseth, who struggled mightily for the first time in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and for one of the few times this season.
Kenseth had only finished lower than 23rd four times this entire season, and three were related to either engine failure or a crash.
But his car was off from the very start, and he struggled to even tell crew chief Jason Ratcliff what adjustments to make on a Toyota he described at one point as “just not drivable.”
“I don’t even know what to tell you to fix, to be honest,” Kenseth radioed. “I am so aero tight. So aero tight.”
Figuring track position and clean air was the only fix, Ratcliff opted for a strategy of having Kenseth do the opposite of other drivers: If they pitted, Kenseth did not, and vice versa. It worked as Kenseth cracked the top 10, but then backfired badly on a pit stop at the worst possible time.
Moments after contact between Johnson and Carl Edwards knocked Johnson out of the groove and forced him to save his Chevrolet from wrecking, a caution was called for Josh Wise’s spin. The Joe Gibbs Racing crew botched the pit stop, changing strategy midstop, and Kenseth compounded the problem by running over his air hose.
His car had to be backed up before it could be serviced. It dropped him to 30th, two laps down, and he restarted behind Johnson at the one opportunity he’d had to make up some ground.
“I called left sides trying to get some track position, and I looked up and there weren’t many cars coming down pit road, so I thought we might as well put four on it,” Ratcliff said. “But when I called four, those guys had left-side tires in their hands and half of them went over the wall and had to come back to get the right-side tires. It’s just a mess.
“I let the guys down. They do a great job on pit road and I made them look bad with the mix-up.”
Johnson, stressed over the incident with Edwards, knew when he saw Kenseth behind him after the caution that he was in great shape.
“I was starting to get worried at that point in time, but seemed shortly thereafter we left pit road and (Kenseth) was behind me again ... I felt like I knew I could manage things and it was about trying to get points again,” Johnson said.
So off in the waning laps, Kenseth’s frustration could be heard over the radio when he couldn’t pass Bobby Labonte and David Gilliland.
“Man, this is bad,” Kenseth said. “I can’t believe I can’t even pass these two cars.”
Although he wasn’t great all weekend, Kenseth said he never saw Sunday’s performance coming.
“Honestly, it was the first day like that, that we’ve had all season long,” Kenseth said. “That just, gosh, that speaks volumes about my team, we haven’t had a day like that all year where we’ve been far enough where we couldn’t stay on the lead lap. It was an unfortunate, disappointing day, but man, we did the best we could do. We just were off.”
After seven wins this season, Kenseth’s first driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, Ratcliff did not believe the team choked.
“Everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh, the pressure got to them,’” he said. “Just poor execution on a track that’s so hard to pass.
You’re trying to make up for something that happened earlier and it just snowballs on you. The car wasn’t responding to changes. We’d make another change and it wouldn’t help it, so we’d put that back and make another change and I don’t know if that was better or worse, so I was like ‘Just quit working on the thing, it’s not responding.’
“We were just trying to make something out of nothing.”
Harvick, meanwhile, picked up his fourth win of the season when Edwards ran out of gas headed to the white flag. Harvick sailed by right before the last lap to grab another memorable moment in a career with Richard Childress Racing that will end next week after 13 seasons.
The victory also put Harvick in the title race — albeit as a long shot, 34 points behind Johnson.
“We’re talking about locking him in the port-a-potty, so that should sum it up,” Harvick joked. “Those guys are good at what they do and they’re good at every track.”