Kenseth Crankin It Up

Matt Kenseth knew eventually it would happen.

After a tremendously long, unfruitful 2001 season that saw not only himself but the other drivers in the Roush Racing organization struggle just to save face, Kenseth and his No. 17 DeWalt Ford team may finally be showing the championship potential it was so highly touted for when Kenseth first entered the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in just over two years ago.

Kenseth has already won a race this season (at Rockingham), and that’s more than he did all of last year. But more importantly, Kenseth is second in the Winston Cup points standings heading into the Easter break this weekend.

He’s turned in two top-five and four top-10 finishes in six races so far this season. He had only four top-five and nine top-10 finishes a year ago, a season that saw him finish a disappointing 13th in the Winston Cup standings.

“I sure hope we’re starting to live up to our potential,” Kenseth said. “We had a pretty decent rookie season and people thought we were going to set the world on fire. A lot of things didn’t go our way last year and that just didn’t happen, and a lot of people started to question us as a team.

“Last year we struggled a lot with our engines and we were having problems figuring out the set-ups on the cars early on, but we started getting better at the end of the year and now we’ve carried that into this year. We’ve been fortunate enough to be competitive just about every week. So, I guess we’re showing our potential more than last year, for sure.”

Team owner Jack Roush has been enjoying the fruits of his teams’ labor. All four of his drivers are in the Top 10 in the Winston Cup points standings (Kurt Busch fifth with one victory; Mark Mark eighth and Jeff Burton ninth), but it’s been Kenseth who’s been the biggest surprise so far to Roush.

“I really thought that Jeff (Burton) would provide the direction early on, but Matt has been,” Roush said. “Matt, by winning first and the way he’s run in terms of setups, has really been more on the mark.”

Kenseth got into an accident and finish a disappointing 33rd at Daytona to start the season. Since then, however, he’s won at Rockingham, finished 14th at Las Vegas, fourth at Atlanta, eighth at Darlington and sixth at Bristol.

“We’re not really doing anything drastically different,” Kenseth said. “We’ve got more of a baseline for our set-ups than we did last year. We’re not as concerned about what everybody else is doing and we don’t get carried away with our set-ups. We just got behind last year and we never caught up.”

Kenseth’s victory at Rockingham last month took him from 32nd in the points to ninth, and he’s made a steady progression ever since.

“We’re taking it one race at a time, and, well, it’s really encouraging to see us running as well as we are,” said crew chief Robbie Reiser.

Roush said it’s difficult to explain the team’s downturn of a year ago.

“Matt was Rookie of the Year the year before (2000) and should have had a much better second year than he had last year,” Roush said. “We’re really glad to bring this kind of success to DeWalt and Matt and everybody at Roush Racing that has been involved and worked so hard. But this is going to be a long year and to be able to have a good start like this rather than the start we had last year, boy, it helps me sleep better.”

Reiser and his crew have certainly been a huge part of the No. 17 DeWalt Ford team’s success. One of the bright spots for the team a year ago was winning the pit crew championship at North Carolina Speedway in November.

Reiser and Kenseth used to race against each other on the short tracks of Wisconsin in the early to mid-1990s, and the two have been together as a driver/crew chief combination for going on five years now.

That continuity, Roush said, is what makes the team click.

“You can’t say enough about Robbie Reiser and the great job the pit crew has done,” Roush said. “When Matt was out front (at Rockingham), they kept him out front. When you think about people that have won their championships in the last decade, pit crew performance the like of which Robbie and the guys have brought to the table this year has been essential, and that certainly bodes well for what we’ll be able to do with them the rest of the year.”

Kenseth and his team will head to a track this weekend that hasn’t been one of their better ones – Texas Motor Speedway. He finished 31st at the 1.5-mile oval in his rookie season, and finished 20th a year ago.

Kenseth, however, said he just hopes the early-season momentum the team has gained will continue.

“We’ve started off on a great foot obviously,” Kenseth said. “Everything’s been rolling for us. Other than our crash at Daytona, we’ve been running good every week. That’s what we need to keep doing.”

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