Since early March, Matt
Kenseth has been quietly enjoying the view from the top. As the
current Winston Cup points leader, Kenseth, driver of the #17 DeWalt
Ford Taurus, is a marked man, the driver everyone is gunning for,
but you would hardly know it to talk to him.
With drivers like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. lurking behind
him in the standings, just waiting for him to slip, Kenseth is under
constant pressure to run every race as perfectly as he can. Pressure
like that can really get to a driver, but through it all Kenseth
still maintains his cool.
However, when you fly under the radar like Kenseth has been able to
do so far this season, keeping it together is easy to do, and that's
fine with him.
"It's been cool because mostly everybody's been leaving us alone and
we've been able to concentrate on the car and we've been running
good," says Kenseth. "But if we can continue doing what we're doing
I think it's going to get busier and more people are going to talk
about it and more people are going to be on you about it. I've
already seen that the last couple of weeks."
Kenseth is on pace to bring Jack Roush his first Winston Cup
championship in 15 years of competition as a Winston Cup car owner.
His current lead of 174 points over Jeff Gordon is the largest
margin after 16 races any leader has had since 1990.
The key to the team's success has been their consistent finishes,
which they 'll need plenty of if the rest of the top five manage to
"Everybody's up trying to gain on you and knock you off," says
Kenseth. "And right now the four guys behind us are all running
really good, and they're all running in the top three or four every
week, so you have to be on top of your game and you have to have
top-five finishes to be able to maintain what you have, or gain on
it, because all of those guys are running good right now."
Kenseth's championship run isn't surprising when you consider the
season he had last year. While 2002 was a banner year for Kenseth,
going to victory lane five times - tops among all drivers last
season - finishing 8th in points, he believes his dismal sophomore
season in 2001 laid the building blocks for his teams future
"Two thousand one was a bad year for us, but it was kind of a
rebuilding year, figuring out what we needed for cars and engines
and setups and stuff like that," Kenseth said. "Toward the end of
2001, we had some real good finishes toward the end of the year,
some real good runs. Even some of the times, we didn't finish good
we ran really well, we were able to kind of figure out what we
needed to build for cars last year, and we were able to win some
"We didn't change a lot for this year, and we implemented a lot of
stuff we learned last year to this year, and tried to be a little
bit smarter and try to be more consistent than we were last year."
While steady finishes have kept Kenseth on top of the points
standings, it hasn't translated to success in qualifying. Prior to
the June race at Dover, where he qualified fourth, Kenseth hadn't
started better than 12th and has an average start of 20.8 after 16
The statistics don't really concern Kenseth. With an average finish
of 7.5, Kenseth knows what matters is where you stand at the end of
"Qualifying and racing are two different things," Kenseth said. "Our
qualifying has been average for us this year. We've been middle of
the pack, and a 500-mile race is not that bad. It would be better to
start off in the front because we could probably collect more bonus
points than what we collect now. Our race setups have been good.
We've been pretty consistent, we've been pretty competitive, and
we've been there at the end, so that's important."
Now it's coming up on crunch time, as the series begins 20
consecutive weeks of racing beginning with this weekend's race at
Daytona. All that racing plus the pressure of keeping the rest of
the top five at bay could be tough on a driver, but even tougher on
the rest of the team.
"It's not much of a concern for me," says Kenseth. "I'm more
concerned about the team, a lot of the crew guys, they'll work all
week on the car and then they'll travel all weekend and they don't
really get to see their families or get caught up and they don't get
a chance to have any down time, really, so I worry about them more
than me. I can have some control over my schedule, where they really
don't. Sometimes they get one day a week off, with all the traveling
we do and how busy the schedule is now, they don't get a whole bunch
of time to themselves."
To top it all off, there are the "what if's?" Mechanical failures
and other maladies can make or break your season, a fact Kenseth
knows quite well. However, in a style typical for Matt Kenseth, he
doesn't let it get to him.
"It's such a long year. Last year we didn't have many mechanical
failures and then at the end of the year we had two failures in the
last four races and lost half the laps in each race. So, anything
can just happen so fast," Kenseth says. "There's so many pieces and
parts in these cars that stuff can break. So, I don't worry about
that too much right now, because you never know when a bad streak is
going to fall.
"Hopefully, we can keep the momentum, but you never know when
stuff's going to break, and sometimes that just snowballs. So,
hopefully, we can just keep it going how it is."
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