Part 2: Moving up the ladder.
The #17 team came into Rockingham as the defending race champions. One year ago, Kenseth took advantage of his crew's strong work in the pits and claimed his first of five wins. This year, the team had a different look with three new members, but they were determined to maintain the standard that gave them consecutive wins in the World Pit Crew Championships.
Kenseth had a mediocre qualifying run on Friday, placing his Ford 18th on the starting grid, but then had a fast car in practice and worked his way through the field quickly on Sunday. He was keeping pace with the leaders and after a quick four-tire stop on lap 87, broke into the top-10 for the first time.
Kenseth worked his way up to fourth with 25 laps remaining. He was gaining on Dale Jarrett and teammate Kurt Busch, who were battling for the lead in the closing laps. Kenseth ran out of time to contend for the lead and finished third.
"We performed really well since we got here," said Kenseth, who jumped to sixth in the standings. "We had a good car; we just needed to be up front. We just came up a little short."
Kenseth rolled off the field in 17th, but made his way to the front quickly, breaking into the top-10 on lap 34.
The crew pulled off a quick yellow-flag stop on lap 99 that vaulted the #17 into sixth place. The yellow came out again 33 laps later, but Kenseth stayed out. He later admitted that he made a mistake, but the track position helped put his Ford at the front of the field.
Kenseth jumped into the lead on lap 172 and quickly distanced himself from the rest of the field. He needed fuel with 40 laps remaining and the #17 crew pulled off a 13.6 second stop that helped Kenseth maintain his lead. He led the final 31 laps and picked up his first win of the season.
"That pit stop at the end was the key," Kenseth said from victory lane. "Last week they were down on themselves because we didn't quite have the pit stop we wished at the end and it possibly could have taken us out of contention. This week they won the race for me."
With the win at Las Vegas, Kenseth jumped to second in the standings, just three points behind Michael Waltrip.
"I'm looking forward to Atlanta," Kenseth said before the first practice session on Friday. "Atlanta is one of my favorite tracks because you can run on the top or the bottom depending on what your car wants."
Kenseth started 24th and again found himself working his way through the field early. He was in the top-10 midway through the race and surged to third with 100 laps remaining.
The crew was strong again on pit road, routinely getting the #17 car out in less than 14 seconds.
Kenseth fought a failing power steering pump in the closing laps and brought the DeWalt Ford home in fourth. It was his third straight top-5 finish and gave him the points lead.
"I guess it doesn't really matter this early in the year," said Kenseth, who had a 49 point margin on defending series champion Tony Stewart. "It's better to be ahead than behind."
When the #17 team unloaded the hauler at Darlington, crew chief Robbie Reiser brought the same car that Kenseth drove to a third place finish at Rockingham and was looking for similar results.
"We just need to keep doing what we've been doing in the first four races," Reiser said. "We need to make sure the car is handling the best it can and keep up the good work in the pits."
He immediately started picking up positions, working his way to 26th on lap 20 and 17th on lap 68. By lap 117, Kenseth was in the top-10.
Kenseth stayed in the top-10 while Busch and Ricky Craven staged a classic battle for the win in the closing laps. Craven edged Busch by a nose in the closest margin of victory since electronic timing has been used in NASCAR.
"That was a good finish because it started off not looking too good," said Kenseth, who padded his lead over Stewart in the standings by eight points. "Thankfully, through those middle runs that were long greens, we were able to have a decent handling car and stay on the lead lap."
Kenseth knew that to have a chance at another good finish at Bristol, he would need to improve on his lackluster qualifying performance to date.
"If you start in the back you are already a half a lap behind the leader before you even take the green flag," said Kenseth, who had fifth and sixth place finishes at the half mile oval in 2002. "I wouldn't mind starting on points this week since I'd be on the pole."
The strategy didn't work out. The field was set by lap times and Kenseth started 37th.
Kenseth started his charge to the front early, moving up to 24th 50 laps in and he jumped to fourth when he stayed out during a caution seven laps later. Kenseth stayed in the top-5 until he was caught a lap down when the yellow came out just after their green flag stop on lap 372.
He got back on the lead lap when the caution came out again on lap 408. The DeWalt Ford moved up to second with 18 laps remaining but suffered damage to the right front fender while passing Bobby Labonte. The damage caused the tire to rub and cost Kenseth a shot at making a charge on Busch, who went on to win the race. Kenseth had his fifth straight top-10 finish and led Busch by 138 points.
Kenseth was looking forward to his return to Texas and defending his win from a year ago. "Hopefully we can add another one to the win column this weekend," he said.
Kenseth was making a habit of making up for weak qualifying efforts with a strong start in the race. He started 17th at Texas and picked up six spots by the second lap. When the caution flag camp out on lap 13, the DeWalt Ford stayed out and inherited a top-10 spot.
Kenseth was leading the field when he came in for a green flag stop for fuel and tires on lap 224. One lap later, the caution came out trapping the #17 Ford a lap down. On the restart, Kenseth jumped out ahead of the leaders and got back on the lead lap when the caution flew again two laps later.
He worked his way up to a sixth place finish.
"We just really, really struggled in traffic," said Kenseth, who left Texas with a 155 point margin over Busch in the standings. "We didn't have the best stop at the end. We just got too far behind."
By the time Kenseth and the #17 team got to Talladega for the eighth race of the season, they were already taking on championship form. It was still early in the year, but they had six straight top-10 finishes and led Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 129 points.
"It's a long season with plenty of races to go," Kenseth said. "We're building that base of consistency that sets the groundwork later in the year."
Kenseth started 27th at Talladega, where he managed just one top-5 finish in six career starts. He suffered minor damage avoiding a multi-car wreck that happened after Ryan Newman cut a tire and spun into traffic early in the event. The #17 team made several stops under caution and were 24th for the restart.
Kenseth worked the draft and managed to get into the top-5 by lap 54 and took the lead on lap 80. He hooked up with Earnhardt, who was looking for his fourth straight win at Talladega, and was back in the lead after a caution on lap 83.
Kenseth was out front with two laps to go, but Earnhardt was leading the draft in the low lane. Kenseth lost his draft and Earnhardt blew by for the win.
"I couldn't win the race without anyone pushing me," said Kenseth who finished ninth. "That's just the way it works, but if you line up behind the 8 (Earnhardt), it's hard to beat him."
The #17 left the biggest track on the circuit and immediately started thinking about the smallest. Martinsville -- the .533 mile oval and one of the oldest tracks on the circuit -- has its own unique characteristics that can frustrate a team hunting for the championship.
"Martinsville does have one big similarity to the restrictor plate track -- patience," said Kenseth, who finished second in the event one year ago. "You've got to keep your head on straight and take care of your equipment."
Kenseth started 34th and fought an ill-handling car early in the race. Midway through the race the #17 car was in 29th and after 300 laps moved up to 20th.
The caution came out with 152 laps remaining and Reiser gambled on track position. He left Kenseth out hoping for another caution. The race stayed green for 80 laps and Kenseth lost a lap.
In the closing laps, Kenseth and teammates Busch and Mark Martin were in line and got together. The contact shuffled Kenseth back to 22nd where he finished. It was the first time all season that Kenseth failed to finish on the lead lap.
"We just ran real badly," Kenseth said after climbing out of his machine. "Everybody worked on it hard and we got it respectable at the end if we could do a real, real long run, but it just wouldn't go anywhere."
After enjoying a week off for Easter, the #17 team went to California with a 51 point edge over Earnhardt in the standings. They were looking to rebound from a sub-par race at Martinsville.
"Working the setup for a place like California is a bit of a relief compared to a couple of weeks ago," said Reiser, who brought the same car that Kenseth guided to victory lane in Las Vegas. "We never could get anything consistent going, but I know we'll have something good at Fontana."
Kenseth qualified 23rd. It was the same starting spot he had when he finished a career-high third at California in 2000.
He had a good set-up and quickly moved into the top-10. He passed Earnhardt for fifth on lap 90 and into third by lap 130.
Kenseth held a top-5 spot, but struggled through lapped traffic. He picked up five bonus points for leading lap 205 when the other leaders made yellow flag pit stops. Kenseth came in two laps later and returned to the track in ninth, where he finished the day. Busch went on to his second win of the year.
"It was frustrating at times," said Kenseth, who lost seven points in his lead over Earnhardt. "We struggled all day. If we could have had a 40 lap green to the end, I think we could have run in the top five, but we just had short runs."
"I think most everyone out here would agree that being under the lights reminds us of how we all began in this sport," Kenseth said.
Kenseth was the defending champ of the race. He started 18th and needed just 30 laps to guide the #17 Ford into the top-10. He held his position among the leaders for the first half of the race before dropping to the end of the lead lap after tangling with rookie Casey Mears on a restart.
The crew repaired the left front fender on the #17 machine and Kenseth worked his way back to 10th on lap 338. He powered his way to seventh 14 laps later but checked up to avoid a late-race crash and lost a position.
The race was red-flagged for rain with seven laps to go and Kenseth finished seventh. It was his series-high ninth top-10 finish. Earnhardt finished third and closed the gap at the top of the standings to 20 points.
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
Part 3: The Quest Continues (November 24)
Part 4: Taking Control (November 26)
Part 5: Clinching the Cup (November 28)