It’s been 18 months since Matt Kenseth has competed in a NASCAR Cup Series race. For his sake and the sake of the 39 other drivers in the field, here’s hoping that he remembers how it’s done.
Kenseth is going to be racing under highly unusual circumstances Sunday at Darlington Raceway.
A tough way for Matt Kenseth to resume his career
The sports world will be watching closely when NASCAR resumes its season with an event that starts a sequence of five races in 15 days. Executives from the other major sports will be interested in how NASCAR handles the logistics of 40 teams working in a confined space on pit row and what the event feels like with no fans in the grandstands because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth jokes that his fellow competitors would do well to keep their attention on him once the green flag comes down. Kenseth will be in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet under racing conditions for the first time, literally. The timing of NASCAR’s season resumption has left no time for test laps. Teams will get no practice time and won’t go through qualifying this weekend.
On top of that, Kenseth has no experience with his crew chief or spotter under racing conditions.
“How would you like to be one of those suckers lined up around me?” Kenseth joked on a podcast hosted by retired driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. “You think I’m nervous?”
Kenseth, 48, is a pro with 39 wins and nearly 190,000 laps logged on NASCAR’s top circuit, so there’s no real reason to believe anyone around him is in danger. But he will nevertheless be one of the day’s key storylines because his last Cup Series races came late in the 2018 season while splitting time with Trevor Bayne for Roush Fenway Racing.
Kyle Larson’s blunder opened the door
Chip Ganassi Racing called upon Matt Kenseth to drive after Kyle Larson erred badly last month and was fired. Larson, 27, had a solid start to his career and was competitive in 2020 before the season was suspended, then threw it all away by using a racial slur during one of the live-streamed virtual races that NASCAR conducted to fill the void.
Although Kenseth had taken last season off, he has said he never considered himself to be retired. In fact, he won a super late-model race last summer in Wisconsin.
Had he been asked to drive at the start of the season, Kenseth might have turned down the offer in order to spend more time with his wife and four young daughters. But being offered the opportunity in mid-season is different because he’s hopping into a hot ride. Larson had posted three top-10 finishes, including one on the top five, in the early going this season.
“Usually when you make a driver change or a crew chief change or all that, it’s almost always performance-related, right?” Kenseth told Dale Earnhardt Jr. “So to have that opportunity to get in a car that’s currently running well … I just thought it was a good opportunity for me to take another stab at it.”
Sunday should be interesting
Darlington Raceway has been a fixture on the NASCAR schedule for decades, with 115 previous Cup races on the South Carolina oval.
Sunday’s event will be a 400-mile race on gently banked asphalt that leads to lots of racing near the wall, perhaps not the optimal environment for drivers who haven’t been in their cars since March 8 in Phoenix.
If all go well, the field will return to Darlington three days later for a rare mid-week race.
One driver who’ll be watched closely is Ryan Newman, making his return after a horrific crash as Daytona to start the season.