MATT KENSETH, No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Is the approach to this race different now that you are locked into the Chase?
“Not really. For the last 25 races we’ve known that if you win you’re almost for sure into the Chase. It doesn’t really change it, but I’m glad we’re in because now we don’t have to stress about it Saturday night. Like I said, we’ve known that for 25 weeks and we’ve been doing the best we can to try to get a win and finish as high as we can. I feel like we’re gaining on our performance a little bit and we’ve been putting together some good races when we don’t get caught up in wrecks or have problems we’ve been finishing pretty good. Hopefully, we can just kind of continue the momentum from the last few weeks and get up there and battle for a win.”
How is your approach to the Chase different from last season?
“I don’t think my approach is any different. The rules are a little bit different obviously. If we won at Chicago last year then the next two races you might be thinking about things differently knowing the way it’s setup now that whoever wins Chicago, if they’re in the Chase then the next two are basically meaningless except for testing, finish and pay and all that stuff. I think about it a little differently because last year we went into the Chase and had a lot of confidence that as long as we had even luck I felt like we could really out run everybody or be right next to out running everybody. At the end of the day it wasn’t true because we got out run by the 48 (Jimmie Johnson). We got beat on performance. We didn’t get beat on bad luck necessarily. This year I don’t feel like that right now. We haven’t had the speed the first 25 weeks to out run everybody even on our best days. We’ve been in position to win a few races if cautions would have not came out or things would have fell our way or whatever. We put ourselves in that spot a few times, but we haven’t been nearly as strong as we were last year at this time. I guess you don’t really change your approach, you go out and race as hard as you can and try to finish the best you can and do all that stuff. I realize where we’re at today we need to not have any problems and we need to be perfect. We need to be perfect on pit road and on the race track and execute and all that stuff and get the best finish we can and hopefully at the same time improve our performance and hopefully get through that first round and start working on the second one.”
Do you expect any driver to be more aggressive in this race?
“I think it’s like any other race where it depends what position you’re in and the situation you’re in. The spring race we were leading and I think we were good the first restart and the second one I was good, but then I think it was the third one and I didn’t fire off really good on that restart. I don’t think Brad (Keselowski) could have hit me any harder without knocking his radiator out and knocking my tail off so I don’t know how much more aggressive it can really get than that. I thought that was really aggressive for the win last spring. There were three or four of us all there nose to tail mixing it up and kind of getting bumped around, trying to hang onto it. I think it just depends on what spot you’re in. No matter what spot you’re in, if you’re not within striking distance to the leader it’s not like you can be rough or more aggressive to win the race. I think it just depends on where you’re at and what situation you’re in.”
How confident do you feel about Chicagoland?
“I think the better you run, the more confident you are naturally. We tested there a few weeks ago and it was okay. I feel like we’ve been gaining on it in performance and we’ve been able to run in the top-five and run pretty good. If you can run up in the top-five and keep putting yourself in position enough times, hopefully eventually you will get those wins. I think we feel pretty good as a group going to Chicago. I thought at Loudon (N.H.) we all ran really good so I think we feel pretty good about going there as well. You do want to go there and get a good start. You want to go get a good finish or even better a win to get the thing started for sure.”
Is this track becoming more aggressive as the pavement ages?
“I think it’s all situational. If you fire off on a restart and everybody gets two car lengths away from each other and you can’t get any closer then no. Any race track with any race, no matter what time of year it is or what’s going on, if the guy leading the race is slower than the guys behind him and they’re having a hard time getting around him, that’s always when you see more aggression and obviously see more passing, more moves because you can smell blood in the water and the leader is hanging on for all he’s worth and you’re faster than he is and you’re trying to get by him. I think whenever you have a situation like that, that’s when you usually get aggressive then.”
Are the Hendrick and Penske teams the ones to beat in the Chase?
“There’s been a lot of talk about that Michigan test and reducing power and all that — I think they should just put tapered spacers on those guys for the Chase and leave ours alone. I think that would be good. Penske has been really strong for sure. It seems like it’s been Penske and the HMS (Hendrick Motorsports), Stewart Haas cars — those engines and cars have been the group to beat this year for sure. They’ve been really strong and they are so fast and there’s so many of them that even when a couple of them miss it, there’s a couple more that didn’t. It seems to me anyway that at the end of almost every race that it’s one of those guys you have to beat.”
Can this championship be won without winning a race?
“None of us know that until it’s over. I don’t know — I know the rules are all different, but I’ve seen Tony (Stewart) win the championship winning five times in the Chase and I think he won it one time without winning any races in the Chase. Certainly I think odds are that whoever wins the championship is going to win some races and most likely win them in the Chase. None of us really know that. There’s only one winner and 42 guys that don’t each race so you go out and give it your best and try to bring your best stuff, race as hard as you can every week and take that week’s result and move onto the next week.”
Were you able to see any tire wear in practice today and what do you think of the new qualifying format for Talladega?
“The tire thing, probably need to let the Cup cars get on track tomorrow. I don’t foresee any wear issues. I think it’s going to be the opposite. I think it’s going to be grip issues. I think it’s going to be really slow with hardly any grip — rubbered up real quick, but no wear. We’ll find out more tomorrow. Talladega — it was just such a mess, I guess Daytona was the last plate race and qualifying was just such a mess — people going 100 mph and people going 200 mph and people jamming the brakes so the guy couldn’t draft behind him and get a faster lap. It was probably not that great to watch and it probably wasn’t the safest situation to be in at the same time. I think by shortening the rounds you can wait for a lap, but it takes a minute and a half to leave pit road and take the green. Only being five minutes is going to alleviate a lot of that messing around and you’re going to be out there trying to time your run and get your lap sooner. I think those are good changes.”
Did your team’s approach change now that all three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are in the Chase?
“I don’t really recall that last year. Kyle (Busch) and Denny (Hamlin) are both really great teammates. All three crew chiefs work really well together. If somebody wasn’t in the Chase and there was two other guys and they wanted something of however you want to put it — we always try to do what’s best for the company. I think we all do and we all understand that, but we all got good cars. It’s not like when they build one of them then two guys didn’t get them. We’re trying to build better cars all of the time and you can give us all better cars all of the time but certainly as you’re behind and catching up — like this summer there was some cars that were better and you kind of had to go in order and the crew chiefs and management and engineering and work all of that out and how that works. And, to my knowledge there’s never been a problem with that. So, I think it’s just business as usually. You help your teammates as much as you can until race day and then you try to go and beat them.”
Did making the Chase at Atlanta change any of your team’s plans for the Chase races?
“I don’t think so. It’s just been a busy week. We tested at Charlotte this week and had to be here today for practice already and Monday was a holiday and raced real late Sunday night. So, it was a really busy week. I didn’t even get to the shop this week with all of the stuff going on. I don’t think really anything changed. We already had our cars kind of slated for Chicago — what we wanted to take and Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) has always got a pretty good plan and whether we made it or didn’t make it or no matter where we were in points we still had a plan going forward. We still want to do the best you can every week no matter where you are in the points. You want to show up and try to win. I don’t think it changed anything we had planned.”
Do you think the penalties NASCAR issued last year will prevent anything like that from happening this weekend?
“Oh man, the smartest thing for me to do is not touch that one. It’s different because a win is going to get somebody in and knock the other guy out so there’s nobody in their right mind that would ever give up a win on this level. It’s way too hard to win races so I don’t think you have to worry about that. You can put that out of your mind and other than that I mean, I don’t know. I would assume there’s been 25 weeks to get there. Honestly, I’ve been on the bubble here before and I’ve made it most times. One time we didn’t and my approach when I came into it and still kind of same thought is you have 25 weeks to get it done. It’s not all about this week. This is 1/26th of the chances and opportunities and races and laps and miles that you had to get yourself in a position to make it. So, I know everybody stares at it a lot closer but I don’t think happen here that are that much more out of the ordinary than what might happen on week four or six or 10 or whatever.”