By Jerry Bonkowski
Can someone figure out what’s going on with Matt Kenseth?
Whatever it is, it’s all been wrong, wrong, wrong thus far in the 2016 Sprint Cup season.
Kenseth led 40 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500, only to fade on the last lap and finish a disappointing 14th.
At Atlanta, after leading 47 laps, Kenseth was black-flagged for an inadvertent pit crew mistake, failed to see the flag in time (or potentially ignored it) and wound up losing two laps due to penalty, resulting in yet another disappointing outing, this time 19th.
But nothing could have been more disappointing than Kenseth’s 37th place finish in this past Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He was running up towards the front of the pack when he suddenly got loose, spun, collected Chase Elliott and Carl Edwards (with Kurt Busch getting a minor piece of it, as well), and his day ended prematurely, 43 laps from the finish.
And here’s the most ironic part of it all: Kenseth has an average start of 6.0 in the first three races. Just looking at that stat would seem to indicate a modicum of success resulted between the time he took the green flag and when the checkered flag fell each time.
As good as Kenseth’s average start this season has been, his average finish is almost four times worse: 23.3.
Kenseth now heads with the rest of the Sprint Cup circus to Phoenix International Raceway, knowing he left Las Vegas 10 places lower than when he got there – from 10th and into a three-way tie 20th place with Kyle Larson and former teammate Greg Biffle.
All three drivers are now 56 points behind series leader Kyle Busch, a discrepancy of well over one win’s worth of points.
Even if Kenseth were to win at Phoenix, he’s so far behind Busch that he’d be lucky to climb back into the top 10 even with a checkered flag in his back pocket.
Why Kenseth has fallen so far in such a short period of time is a true, unsolved mystery:
* It’s not his age (coincidentally, he turns 44 on March 9).
* He certainly hasn’t forgotten how to drive.
Sunday’s wreck came when it appeared Ryan Blaney side drafted Kenseth, taking the air off his car, causing him to wiggle and then shoot up the turn 2 banking and into the retaining wall.
Something like that could happen to any driver. Although, to be fair, it’s hard to believe it happened to such an experienced and championship-winning driver as Kenseth.
He just was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
* It’s not related to his team – well for the most part. Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff have a great relationship. However, while it may have seemed a minor infraction when a wrench was left on the back of Kenseth’s car for just a few seconds while it received tires and fuel, that fundamental mistake at Atlanta led to the very costly black-flag penalty against Kenseth.
Going forward to Phoenix, the following week at Fontana and beyond, Kenseth has a lot of ground to cover to get back into the championship mix.
But the good thing is he still has 23 races in the regular season to bounce back. Plus, just one victory in that period would immediately make him eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
If there’s ever been a hallmark of Kenseth’s career, it’s that whenever he’s fallen behind, it only serves to make him stronger and eventually more successful.