As Matt Kenseth’s bright-yellow Toyota roared over the finish line during Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, he might have seen racing’s future in his rear-view mirror.
Kenseth is part of racing’s old guard these days, a 44-year old veteran who now has 37 career victories and remembers fondly the Cup championship he won in 2003.
His skills haven’t diminished much, if any, however. He proved that Sunday by holding off second-place Kyle Larson, 23, by .187 seconds. Another split-second behind Larson was rookie Chase Elliott, 20, whose first season on the Cup circuit now includes four top-10 finishes in 12 races. His third-place finish was a career best.
“I wasn’t very confident that I was going to be able to hold them off, to be honest with you,” said Kenseth.
Maybe – if there’s a next time, Kenseth won’t be able to hold the young guys off. But Sunday, he had just enough to keep them at bay. And the respect Kenseth has earned from (most of) the NASCAR garage probably helped him.
“I didn’t want to do anything dirty,” said Larson. “I respect Matt Kenseth a lot. He’s definitely, in my eyes, the cleanest racer out there. He always races me with respect. I try to do the same with him.
“I’m still early in my career, so I don’t want to make anybody mad or make any rivals. There’s drama in the sport and it takes drivers years to get over it.”
The two youngsters pressed Kenseth during a drama-filled afternoon that included one massive wreck and several smaller duels for the lead.
In the end, Kenseth won for the first time this season. It was the sixth victory in seven races for Joe Gibbs Racing, as well as the organization’s 135th victory, tied for third on NASCAR’s all-time list with Roush Fenway Racing and behind only Richard Petty Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports.
But it also ended a string of misfortune for Kenseth that probably began during last season’s Chase. Kenseth was in position to win at Kansas in October when he was bumped out of the way by Joey Logano, who went on to win.
A few weeks later, Kenseth – who was by then out of Chase contention -- wrecked Logano at Martinsville. NASCAR suspended Kenseth two races for that.
Although he was in contention to win the season-opening Daytona 500 (he was leading on the last lap but finished 14th after an ill-fated decision to attempt a block on winner Denny Hamlin backfired), this season had been mostly hardship on Kenseth.
That might be changing now that he’s won and is virtually guaranteed a spot in the postseason Chase.
“I always feel like these are huge races,” said Kenseth. “I feel like the way we’ve been running, eventually the law of averages are going to work out, you’re going to get your wins, your finishes. It’s going to happen sooner or later.
“I’d say as good as we have run, that is probably the longest streak I can remember being on without having any real good finishes.”
Kenseth had worked his way to second place Sunday when a late-race restart changed the complexion of the race. With 45 laps left, an 18-car wreck scrambled the field. Kenseth avoided the melee and went to the lead after the race had been red-flagged for 11-minutes, 22-seconds.
But he had to deal with Larson, who had led 85 laps earlier in the race, and Elliott. The two young racers figure they’ll see a lot of each other in the future.
“I certainly wouldn’t complain if I was battling for wins (with Elliott) for the next 10 years,” said Larson. “It would be great on my watch. I’d love to be in the mix for wins moving forward.”
Said Elliott: “Hopefully we’re battling up front for many years to come. Just looking forward to the future.”