When Matt Kenseth and his No. 17 Crown Royal Ford Fusion team made the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship back in September, his fans didn’t hear the congratulations of being among the top 12 in the playoffs. They didn’t hear about how Kenseth was among the best in the business for this season who would be competing in the toughest 10 races of NASCAR.
It has been a rare season for a man that has built a career on consistency, although at the start of the 2010 season it looked like Kenseth was going to be in typical form. Through the first five races he had five top 10 finishes, the worst of those being an eighth place in the season opening Daytona 500.
Working with new crew chief Todd Parrott brought not only confidence and excitement, but also optimism. They finished second in Atlanta in March and then third at Dover in June after leading for 15 laps.
Now through the first 16 races run Kenseth led in nine of those events, but then things started to get rocky. By mid-June as the team sat seventh in points, Parrott was released from his crew chiefing duties.
Team owner Jack Roush felt the team wasn’t hitting on things during the race weekend or learning in the practice sessions.
In came Jimmy Fennig. Kenseth and Fennig already had a pre-established relationship and a good one. While things weren’t going to change overnight, the hopes were high that the crew chief search was over.
“You hate changing stuff around all the time because it’s hard to get any kind of consistency going … it’s hard to build on stuff,” said Kenseth.
Through the summer months the team continued to ride the roller coaster. The next six races resulted in finishes of 12th or worse before a fifth place at Michigan before the Chase started just weeks later.
To some they squeaked by and made it in. To others they were taking the place of more deserving teams such as Jamie McMurray who a strong case was made for. Kenseth and the entire Roush-Fenway organization never stopped working though and they knew that it was a only a matter of time before they became factors.
In the third race of the Chase, Kansas, he led 26 laps and finished seventh. The following week at California where he’s won at before he started third, led 29 laps and 40 laps remaining while he ran in the top 10 the engine started to go sour. He finished 30th and sat 11th in points, still facing the critics that said he would finished 12th in points.
Over the last few weekends though, those critics have gotten quieter.
Kenseth finished sixth at Charlotte, 15th at Martinsville, and 16th at Talladega after leading 12 laps. Now they quietly sat eighth in points as the focus and attention turned to the top three in the championship battle.
Entering Texas only twice this season had RFR been able to celebrate victories, both coming from Greg Biffle. None of their three drivers, Kenseth, Biffle or Carl Edwards was going to win the title as all three were enduring their own struggles in the Chase.
Texas though is one of Kenseth best racetrack and he came with one half a lap of winning his first race since February of 2009. Biffle dominated the race and Edwards had won the Nationwide Series race the day before.
Next came Phoenix where Edwards swept the weekend and Kenseth earned another top 10 finish. Entering the final weekend of the season the team that had fought all year long was sitting fifth in the championship standings.
Winless and with a pole, they’re among the drivers that have been in the spotlight all season long. The 14 top 10s and six top fives they’ve complied is the worst of any driver in the Chase, but through the elimination of mistakes and wrecks it’s helped their points climb.
Before the Chase they led just 35 laps. In nine races of the 10 in the Chase, they’ve led 72 laps.
“All our cars [Roush-Fenway] seem to be faster the last few months, so lately it seems things have been going better,” said Kenseth at Homestead.
“Last week [Phoenix] I thought we had a shot at it without having that pit road penalty on our last pit stop,” he said. “It feels like we’re gaining momentum and things are smoother and cars are quicker and we’re understanding each other probably a little better.”
Sunday at Homestead will mark Kenseth’s 400th career start in the NSCS. He’s reflected only a little, just to think about former crew chief Robbie Reiser whom he once drove for and then won a Cup title with in 2003.
But there’s not time to reflect too much, because to Kenseth it’s just another race and the last race to get a win this season. He’s only ever gone winless in a season once before, that was 2008. He’s start from the lucky No. 13 spot at a track that has been dominated by the company he drives for and where he won in 2007. There’s nothing like ending the season on a high note, even though it’s in the back of his mind that if something does go wrong he could potentially finish 11th in points.
“It’s been a disappointing few years for me and probably for the team as well,” he said. “I feel like if we can get through Sunday without problems and run as good as I feel we’re capable of and finish fourth of fifth in the points, that’s a highlight of our year, something to hang on our hat on.”
It would be hard to question whether he deserved to be in the Chase then.