KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Matt Kenseth had to choke back his words when he got to Victory Lane, fumbling with his sunglasses in an attempt to hide his emotions.
His 14-year run at Roush Fenway Racing is in the homestretch and Kenseth is going out with class, dignity — and wins.
He slammed his No. 17 Ford hard into the wall at Kansas Speedway midway through Sunday's race, went to pit road to let crew chief Jimmy Fennig fix the car and then drove it to his second victory in three weeks. The bond between driver and crew was clear in the post-race celebration, even though Kenseth tried to play it cool.
"It really means a lot; I don't want to get too emotional," he said, talking fast to try to get through it cleanly.
Kenseth is leaving Roush at the end of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing for personal reasons he's only vaguely explained in detail. The decision was made in June, but Kenseth couldn't discuss it publicly until September.
Now that he's in his final month with the team that gave him his break in NASCAR, he's got to be feeling a bit nostalgic.
"I really want to thank Jack Roush, Robbie Reiser and Mark Martin. Without them guys, I never would have been at Roush," Kenseth said in Victory Lane before shifting into the obligatory sponsor rundown. Changing the subject allowed him to compose himself, to keep these sentimental moments private.
Kenseth and Reiser have been together their entire NASCAR careers, and before that as short-track racers in Wisconsin. They moved to NASCAR together with a then-Busch Series team in 1997 and went Cup racing as driver and crew chief at Roush two years later.
Reiser guided Kenseth to the Cup championship in 2003, and as general manager of the organization has been part of Kenseth's two Daytona 500 wins and 24 career Cup victories, which ties him for 26th on the all-time series list. He has made the Chase every year but one, and has won at least one race each year in all but two of his 13 full-time seasons in the Cup series.
Kenseth has also notched 26 Nationwide Series wins in what many believe is a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
He said he has never given any thought to his statistics.
"You never know when or if your next win is," Kenseth said. "Especially as you get older, you really appreciate it more. I'm really, really thankful and humble to be sitting up here, honestly. It's just a pleasure to drive (the Roush) stuff. We still have some races left we want to win. I just think it says a lot about these guys sitting here, Robbie, everybody else, how hard they work, give me the best stuff, give me a chance to win every week."
And he means that, too. Kenseth will go out the final four races trying to close his run with Roush on top.
He was a decent title contender this season — Kenseth led the points for a six-week stretch during the summer, and was ranked second in the standings eight other times — but Kenseth was dropped to 11th in points when the field was reset at the start of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Any chance at winning a second championship vanished when mechanical problems and mistakes in the first three Chase races dropped Kenseth to last in the standings.
So even with his win three weeks ago at Talladega and Sunday's victory at Kansas, Kenseth has only been able to rally to ninth in points.
"We've had two great races where they couldn't be better, and we had four that probably couldn't be a lot worse," Kenseth said. "It's been up and down. This season we started off real fast, could run in the top-five every week it felt like. We went through a couple months where we didn't perform as well. Unfortunately, one of those months ran into the Chase.
"I just felt like we were a little off as a group, plus we made a few mistakes that we typically never make, have had some other problems that cost us some finishes. So It feels good to get here, have a fast car, have everything happen right, be able to get the win."