Kenseth's view from the top
by Pete McCole

July 3, 2003

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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 keep pace.

"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 success.

"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 races.

"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 races.

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 the season.

"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."

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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