Following an 18-month absence from NASCAR Cup Series competition, Matt Kenseth is methodically checking off boxes before climbing into the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet at Darlington Raceway.
At 48, the former champion is not taking the challenge lightly. With 39 victories to his credit—including his 2013 Southern 500 win—Kenseth understands it won't be a cakewalk navigating the 1.366-mile oval affectionately known as the Track Too Tough to Tame.
So how much time has Kenseth spent in the simulator to prepare for this Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400?
“About fifteen minutes or so,” Kenseth said with a laugh. “There are a lot of good things about it, but it’s still not exactly the race car. I’ve been doing as much as I can, as far as being prepared, looking at data and reading notes. Going to the simulator was one of those boxes that I wanted to check.
“So, I did go over there to drive it and make a few runs at Darlington to just kind of drive it, feel comfortable and all that stuff. I didn’t really spend an extended period of time there because, in my mind, it’s still not like driving the race car. There are a lot of things that are very similar, but a lot of things that are different as well. I did spend a little bit of time there, but not a lot.”
Truth be told, Kenseth has never been a fan of the simulator. He could have used a barf bag the first time he experienced the rig at Toyota Racing Development in Salisbury, N.C., But after two decades of NASCAR Cup competition, Kenseth has plenty of tools in his arsenal to ready himself for his return.
Still, a lot has changed since 2018, when Kenseth filled in at Roush Fenway Racing for the struggling Trevor Bayne. Kenseth was quite familiar with the systems at Roush Fenway, where he raced for more than a decade prior to joining Joe Gibbs Racing. At Ganassi Racing, Kenseth will have to acclimate not only to a new program but a new crew chief in Chad Johnston, as well as a new spotter, Tony Raines.
“I haven’t met with Tony, my spotter, yet,” Kenseth said. “I met with Chad (Johnston) a bunch of times. I’m actually at the shop right now (Thursday morning) and was just meeting with him and Chip (Ganassi, team owner).
“So, yeah, I’ve been over here a fair amount. Like I touched on before, it’s different with the shifts and there aren’t a lot of people here at the same time. I was actually just going through all the final details for the car for Sunday, just making sure everything was good and going through all that stuff to get ready.”
With the NASCAR-imposed restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenseth is experiencing the same disadvantages as his fellow drivers. There is no practice to shake down the cars before the race. Qualifying has also been scrapped in favor of a draw for Sunday’s lineup.
Ganassi teammate Kurt Busch, who worked alongside Kenseth at Roush early in their careers, believes the veteran is up for the challenge.
“It’s a unique set of circumstances for him, as well as everybody,” Busch said. “For Matt to not be in a car for a longer duration than most of us, it will be different with a new team and new communication over the radio. He has gone through the steps with Ganassi and with Chevrolet in the simulator to make some laps and hear his crew chief on the radio and to do things in the virtual aspect.
“But again, nothing translates to the real thing in feeling the G-forces and being out there with the competitors. He has the option to start in the seventh-place position, or wherever the random draw goes for the top-12 in points. So there is that question of whether he wants to drop to the back and kind of ease into it. But Matt is a champion, a true professional, and I am excited to work with him as we move forward.”
Although JGR has won the five of the last seven races at the Lady in Black, Ganassi Racing has been solid at Darlington of late. Busch and Kyle Larson led 138 of 367 laps the last time NASCAR raced at the track in September. The No. 42 team has three podium finishes in their last four starts.
Kenseth joked that Johnston assured him the car’s setup will be “perfect”. Yet with no track time leading into the event, the first 30 laps leading up to a competition caution could be a white-knuckle experience for sure.
“Nobody has been in a car in a while; certainly, it’s been longer for me,” Kenseth said. “I think the biggest difference for me, also, is that I haven’t driven these race cars or for this team. So there are a few more unknowns. I’m not sure how exactly everything is going to feel and all that kind of stuff. There is certainly a little bit of anxiety for those first few corners to kind of get rolling and get used to things. At the same time, everybody is going to be ready to pounce.
“Restarts are very important, track position is very important and you always want to get what you can get when you can get it. So, I don’t expect people to be taking it real easy or maybe giving you a bunch of extra room or anything like that. You certainly don’t expect any kind of special treatment.
“You know everyone is going to be out there ready to pounce on whatever spot they can, so you just have to be smart. Especially for me, just be smart and get through those first bunch of laps to get in a rhythm, get a little bit of room to move around, breathe, get kind of acclimated, and go from there.”