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Matt Kenseth scores top-10 finish in NASCAR return

Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte discuss the impressive work of Kevin Harvick's crew, led by Rodney Childers, Matt Kenseth's first race back and how drivers did in the Real Heroes 400 with no practice.

After placing third in Sunday’s Cup Series race at Darlington, Kurt Busch exited his No. 1 Chevy and looked at the infield scoring pylon.

The pylon showed the top-10 finishers of NASCAR’s first race in 71 days. Seven spots below Busch’s number was the No. 42, representing Busch’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate.

On March 8, the date of the last Cup Series race, that number belonged to Kyle Larson. But 10 weeks later, it has a new owner.

“There’s old Matt Kenseth, No. 42, finishing 10th,” Busch said in a post-race Zoom press conference.

Sunday saw the beginning of the Matt Kenseth era at CGR as the 48-year-old driver made his first start with the team and his first NASCAR start since the 2018 Cup season finale.

Kenseth was hired by CGR to replace Larson, who was fired by the team on April 14 for his use of a racial slur in an iRacing event.

Kenseth called the first few laps of the race “kind of nerve-racking.”

“Then it was sort of back to racing and thinking about what we needed to be better,” Kenseth said. “Everyone on the team has worked extremely hard the last couple weeks to prepare for today, and I’m proud of what we accomplished today. I learned a lot throughout the race about the way the car handles and reacts to different situations, and it was nice to really get acclimated to the Camaro and the team in a real racing environment. It’s always a good feeling to get a top- at a place like Darlington, but to have done it under these circumstances feels that much better. I still have some room to improve, but today shows all of us we have a lot to look forward to as the season continues.”

Prior to the start of Sunday’s race, Kenseth expressed his gratitude to the team given the trying circumstances they’ve faced.

After the first caution for a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crash, Kenseth had a lot of info for his crew chief, Chad Johnston. The two traded humorous barbs over it.

Kenseth displayed more of his trademark wit during the first stage break.

Throughout the race, Johnston helped Kenseth out by relaying him info on how much drivers were on and off the gas in the turns.

In the end, Kenseth was able to crack the top 10 by Lap 210. He raced as high as ninth before settling into 10th.

Kenseth’s top 10 at the track “Too Tough To Tame” came despite him not getting any on-track preparation before the drop of the green flag Sunday, which put him in a similar position to the rest of the field.

“That’s what he will do everyday, all race tracks,” Busch said. “That’s Matt. That’s what he does. So for him to balance out with (crew chief) Chad Johnston, Ganassi and everybody first day out to get a top 10, that’s huge. That’s sets a big tone. I’ve yet to be able to call (team co-owners) Chip Ganassi or Rob Kauffman, but I’ll be calling Matt Kenseth on my way home. It’s really a neat day for us to be able to bounce back like that.”

The performance by Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, reaffirmed the belief of race winner Kevin Harvick that Kenseth shouldn’t have been out of NASCAR racing to begin with.

“Matt Kenseth was winning races when he (stepped away from full-time race in 2017),” Harvick said. “As you look at that whole situation when he got kind of moved out at (Joe) Gibbs (Racing), Matt Kenseth is going to be a huge part of that race team and making Chip Ganassi Racing better. He’s going to be great for the sponsors. ... Experience and skill go a long way in our sport. If you have those two things, like Matt does, you’re going to be successful. You don’t just forget how to do that. Matt’s a pro and a very good one at that.”