Matt Kenseth: Race to the Championship, part 1

Matt Kenseth put together a pretty special season one year ago. He led the Winston Cup circuit with five wins. He finished a career-high eighth in the championship point standings and he also won his first pole.

Matt Kenseth celebrates 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup championship with his team.
Photo by Autostock.
But if you ask Kenseth, the best thing about 2002 was the learning experience. It set him up to become a champion.

"My goal is to be as competitive as we were last year, win a couple of races again and do a better job of not making mistakes," Kenseth said before leaving for Daytona in February. "We need to have a better, consistent finishing average. I have to do the best job I can to not make the mistakes I made last year that cost us points."

Despite racking up 11 top-5's and 19 top-10 finishes, the team also suffered through three DNF's and finished 30th or worse in 11 races. Kenseth knew that to be the champion, he needed to be more consistent.

"You look at the tracks where you perform the worst and those are the races you're going to want to do better and perform better at," said Kenseth, who along with teammate Kurt Busch signed long-term contract extensions with Roush Racing during the off-season.

"If we can do a better job of not making the mistakes and finish better on those days when we had 35th-place finishes, then we should have a better finishing average. If we don't win a championship this year, I'll be fine with that, but if we don't improve upon our finishing average, I'll be really disappointed."

Daytona

Kenseth's pole in Dover the previous June was special because it was the first of his Winston Cup career. It also earned the #17 DeWalt Ford a ticket to the Bud Shootout, the annual exhibition opener at Daytona. It was the 25th anniversary of the non-points event and the first to be held in prime time under the lights.

Kenseth pulled the fifth place spot on the starting grid for the 70-lap event. He was running with the leaders during the first 20-lap segment and took the lead early in the second segment. After a two-tire stop on lap-37, Kenseth hooked up with Jimmie Johnson and the pair worked their way through the field. Kenseth dropped back to eighth before working his way back to third on the last lap.

"Jimmie and I worked really well together," Kenseth said after the race. "We were behind, but we got going and caught the whole pack. I said to my spotter to tell him to follow me and we'll make some holes. It was a great race."

Matt Kenseth.
Photo by Autostock.
Kenseth followed up with a 16th place finish in the Twin-125 qualifying race. He battled near the front of the field, but lost the draft late in the race and drifted back in the field. He qualified 36th for the main race.

"Daytona is one of those tracks that anything can happen," Kenseth said. "We 've done a lot to prepare for this race, but there's only so much control you have over the outcome of restrictor-plate races. We want the best finish we can get, but if we leave with a top-10, we'll consider that a success."

Kenseth was fast early on Sunday. He sprinted to 10th by the 11th circuit and worked with teammates Mark Martin and Greg Biffle to move up to sixth by lap-50. Kenseth lost the draft and was shuffled back to 19th when a round of green flags pit stops started around lap 95. The Roush cars were getting good fuel mileage and with the skies darkening by the minute the #17 team decided to stay out and hope that they would get a rain delay. He moved up to fourth before pitting under caution.

He dropped back to 20th after the pit stop before the race was called after just 109 laps. It was the shortest Daytona 500 in history.

"I was real happy with my car," Kenseth said. "I'm disappointed our results this week weren't better than what they were. We ran good in the Bud Shootout and ran good in the Busch race and felt like we had a real competitive car, but we just didn't get the results out of it."

Editors's Note: Motorsport.com's Aaron Bell will write a five part series on the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Champion Matt Kenseth. Please return to read the next four installments exclusively on http://www.motorsport.com
Part 2: Moving up the ladder (November 22)
Part 3: The Quest Continues (November 24)
Part 4: Taking Control (November 26)
Part 5: Clinching the Cup (November 28)

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5