Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Matt Kenseth On Qualifying And Coming Up Through The Ranks

Matt Kenseth is 11 years removed from his Winston Cup Championship. A decade from that impressive achievement, he led the series in wins in 2013 and was in contention until the very end for the title. He has had strong runs so far this season, to follow that up but hasn’t been first to the checkered flag just yet. Kenseth’s partnership with crew chief Jason Ratcliff has been very successful thus far, however, and looks to be continuously growing stronger in their second year together. Certainly, the Joe Gibbs Racing partnership has led to a renaissance in Kenseth’s Cup career.

Before the Martinsville race this past weekend, Kenseth spent a little time with Frontstretch to talk about this season, his early years, traveling around and how good his son, Ross, is at his age compared to his old man.

Frontstretch would also like to congratulate Matt and his wife Katie on the birth of their third daughter, Clara Mae.

Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: So far this year, you haven’t scored a win, but you’ve definitely been strong. How do you feel about your 2014 season so far?

Matt Kenseth: I feel good. Everyone wants to win early, for sure but I feel pretty good about it. Everyone is trying to get used to this new rules package and try and get caught up a little bit. I feel like we’ve been pretty competitive. We had a car at Bristol we could have won with but got wrecked a few times. Kyle won at California and we were able to be on the pole, so I feel like we’re gaining on it. I think we’ve had a pretty good start.

Neff: After a little over a year with Joe Gibbs, how are you feeling about your relationship with the whole organization and with Jason Ratcliff specifically?

Kenseth: Good! It has been a good fit right from the start. I feel like, as the year went on last year, we got to know each other better and understand each other better. I feel like we are continuing to grow but I think it has been good.

Neff: We had Tech Talk with Jason a couple of weeks ago and asked him about the fact that, at that point in time, Toyota hadn’t won a race. He said that there are just fewer Toyotas on the track, so battling the numbers can make it look like Toyotas are at a disadvantage, but it is just a little tougher to compete. In the long run, you dominated on the win front in 2013. Do you feel like Toyota gives you as good or a better chance to win a title than a Ford did?

Kenseth: I can’t really sit and compare. There have been a lot of changes with the car models and all of that kind of different stuff. I feel like we have every opportunity there to go win races and try and win championships. Toyota and TRD give us everything we need to be able to do that. I think last year showed that. This year, it is still early in the season. JGR already has a win with Kyle and it is only week five or something. I feel like we’ve had a pretty good start and have a lot of good stuff to build on.

Neff: Last year, you found the inner qualifying Kenseth. Have you figured out yet how that happened or was it just a combination of you and Jason figuring out some things that worked in qualifying?

Matt Kenseth has improved on his qualifying game, since aligning with Joe Gibbs Racing but he doesn’t see it as a personal success.
Matt Kenseth has improved on his qualifying game, since aligning with Joe Gibbs Racing but he doesn’t see it as a personal success.

Kenseth: I don’t think it had a lot to do with me. They gave me some really fast cars last year on Fridays and it was up to me just not to mess it up. This year, until the last couple of weeks, it had been a different story. We’ve struggled a little bit with the new qualifying format. The last two weeks have been pretty good for us, which feels good. Hopefully, we’re back and we can keep getting some good qualifying runs because it does make a difference these days having track position, good pit selection and all of that stuff. It really does make a difference, so we wanted to get back to qualifying good.

Neff: First race car you ever ran. Did you run go-karts, bandoleros, Legends, or anything like that? What was the first car you ever raced?

Kenseth: Nope, I started in stock cars at Columbus Speedway in Wisconsin. It was an ’81 Camaro.

Neff: Where was your first track championship?

Kenseth: That’s a good question. I’m not sure, probably at Madison, Wisconsin.

Neff: Do you remember how many different tracks you won a championship at when you were coming up through the ranks?

Kenseth: Not really. Weekly tracks, it was probably just Madison and KauKauna (Wisconsin International Speedway).

Neff: In 1994 you won the Miller Genuine Draft National Championship. Was that an ASA title or what championship was it?

Kenseth: That was the Slinger Nationals. It is a two-race series that has been going on forever and that was the first time we won the Nationals.

Neff: You have your own plane. How much of a convenience is it to have the ability to jump in a plane and go rather than having to drive or deal with commercial flights?

Kenseth: All of the race teams that I know of, except for a couple of the start-and-parks travel privately. It has been part of the NASCAR culture for a long time. There is no way we could get from some of the places we go to the shop in time to work on the cars and go test and all of that stuff without traveling privately.

Neff: You used to be a heavy metal fan. Is your music preference still leaning that way or have you broadened into any other genres?

Kenseth: Nothing has really changed there.

Neff: You had a connection to the guys from Metallica a while back. Do you keep in touch with them?

Kenseth: No, I don’t. I got to meet them about 10 or 11 years ago. That was about it.

Neff: Ross is having some success in the Super Late Model world and building his career. Where do you see him where you were at about the same age? Is he at about the same level? It is difficult to compare from different times.

Kenseth: It is hard to compare, but he’s probably ahead of where I was at that age. A few years ago, he was light years ahead. Hopefully, he’ll get a chance to move up and try something different to see how he does.

Neff: Any chance your daughters will race when they get older?

Kenseth: I’d say that chance is slim to none.

Neff: Is that on Katie’s side of things or yours?

Kenseth: Probably both, although my oldest is four-and-a-half so it is probably a little early to worry about that.

Neff: You and Greg Biffle built a strong friendship at Roush. Are you still close even though you aren’t on the team with him anymore?

Kenseth: Yeah, we still see each other quite a bit. I don’t think it matters where we work. We’ve been friends for a long time. When I worked at a chassis shop in Illinois, I used to sell him parts when he lived in Washington State, so we’ve known each other a long time.

Neff: Does he invite you up to his street stock race that he does at his property in the mountains?

Kenseth: He usually does it on Thanksgiving and we’re usually gone on Thanksgiving, but we were going to do it on one weekend in December this year. Unfortunately, the weather got too bad for us to do it. I’ve never done it, but I have been up there and been on the track and messed around up there. It is pretty fun.

Kenseth hasn’t wrangled a win in 2014 yet, but he’s had several strong runs, and will most likely be in the Chase when the final ten races of the season roll around. During Sunday’s event, he went a lap down on a run when he tried staying out on old tires. He managed to get the Lucky Dog and rebounded for a sixth-place finish which leaves him second in the point standings, nine behind leader Dale Earnhardt, Jr. After the win by teammate Kyle Busch at Fontana, Kenseth has to feel good about his JGR ride heading to another intermediate race track, Texas this Sunday afternoon.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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