Matt Kenseth had one of those rare seasons in which everything seemed to go right every time he got behind the wheel of his car.
Until the one day he couldn’t afford for anything to go wrong.
Kenseth had one of his poorest performances of the season Sunday, finishing 23rd at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz., to allow Jimmie Johnson to seize control of the championship race. Johnson, who started the day up seven points in the standings, finished third behind Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne to pad his lead to 28 points.
The five-time champion goes to next Sunday’s season finale at Homestead needing to finish 23rd or better to win the title.
Kenseth, who won his only championship 10 years ago, gave what sounded like a concession speech following the race.
“Of course I’m disappointed – we go there basically without a shot to win,” Kenseth said. “On the other hand, I couldn’t be happier and more proud of my team and, man, this has been the best year of my racing career.”
Johnson, who had a mechanical failure in last year’s season finale and finished 36th, wasn’t ready to claim the title following his workmanlike performance at Phoenix.
“We’re heading into Homestead in the position we want to be in,” Johnson said. “I’ll have to go down there and run 400 miles. It’s far from over. You’ve got to finish that race. Although we have a nice cushion, we still have to go down there and take care of business.”
Harvick won at Phoenix for the second consecutive year, capitalizing when Carl Edwards ran out of gas coming to the white flag.
Kenseth had only finished lower than 23rd four times this season, and three were related to either engine failure or a crash.
But his car was off from the very start, and he struggled to even tell crew chief Jason Ratcliff what adjustments to make on a Toyota he described at one point as “just not drivable.”
“I don’t even know what to tell you to fix, to be honest,” Kenseth radioed. “I am so aero tight.”
Jeg Coughlin won his fifth Pro Stock title in the Auto Club NHRA Finals, joining John Force, Shawn Langdon and Matt Smith as season champions.
Coughlin took the title at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., when his only remaining challenger, Jason Line, lost in the second round of eliminations.
After wrapping up the season title Saturday in qualifying, Langdon finished off his season by racing to his seventh victory of the year.
In Funny Car, Hagan beat Force in the final round and finished second in the standings.