Part 3: The quest continues.
Matt Kenseth came to Charlotte for The Winston with a new car, a new paint scheme and thoughts of the new $1 million prize up for grabs in the annual all-star event.
Kenseth qualified 17th in the 24-car field. He fought a tight set-up and finished 11th in the first 40-lap segment. Kenseth needed just three laps to jump up to sixth in the second segment and stayed out for track position during a caution 17 laps into the 30-lap run. He moved up to fourth on the restart and inherited second when they elected to stay out during a second caution.
Kenseth slid back to fourth at the end of the segment and started the final 20-lap shootout in seventh after the top-10 cars were inverted. He moved up to sixth in the final laps while Jimmie Johnson took the win and the million dollar prize.
Charlotte has been kind to Kenseth during his Winston Cup career. He picked up is first win there as a rookie in 2000 and followed teammate Mark Martin to a second place finish one year ago.
The Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race of the year and Kenseth says that the track can be difficult to get a handle on. "I think it's the most sensitive place we go," he says. "It throws the balance of your car off as the track changes."
Kenseth qualified 18th and moved his way into the top-10 in the first 50 laps. He held out for the lead on lap 57 to pick up five bonus points before coming in for a green flag stop. He moved into fifth on lap 95 before a 20-minute red flag delay for rain.
On the re-start, Kenseth picked up a position each lap and took the lead from Tony Stewart on lap 105. Reiser called the #17 car in for tires and fuel on lap 197. While they were in the pits, Ricky Rudd slid through the infield and brought out the caution, trapping Kenseth and the rest of the leaders a lap down.
Kenseth got back on the lead lap on the restart and another caution brought the field back together. He restarted second and followed Jimmie Johnson for 30 laps before the race was red flagged again for rain on lap 274. Soon after, NASCAR called the race.
"I'm happy finishing second," said Kenseth, who padded his points lead to 160 over Dale Earnhardt Jr. "But I sure wish we would have waited it out a little bit and had a shot at it."
Kenseth returned to the Monster Mile, where five years earlier he drove his way to a sixth-place finish in his Winston Cup debut, subbing for Bill Elliott.
"I can honestly say that this is easily my favorite track on the circuit," said Kenseth, who picked up his only Winston Cup pole one year earlier at Dover. "This track can be a lot of fun to drive when you have a great setup because the car will just stick to the bottom groove in the turns."
Kenseth didn't get the pole, but he did nail the fourth fastest time in qualifying for his best start of the season. The #17 car was a little loose early in the run, but Kenseth worked his way to second by lap 119. He dropped back to fourth during the next 80 laps.
The #17 car was still loose midway through the race and Kenseth was conservative during the run. He was leading the Busch Series race the day before when the car broke free and spun coming out of turn 2. Kenseth wanted to make sure that he didn't make the same mistake on Sunday.
He slid back to seventh where he finished the race.
"We ran OK at times and probably had a top three of four car, but for some reason we got really loose on the second-to-last stop," Kenseth said after the race. "I thought we had a better car than that, but it just didn't work out."
When he arrived at Pocono for the 14th event of the 36-race season, Kenseth had been the points leader for 10 straight weeks. So far, Kenseth had avoided the bad luck that plagued the team early the previous season.
"We're really just looking at things one week at a time right now," Kenseth said. "Going out each week and doing the best we can has worked for us so far this year, so that's what we're going to continue with now."
Kenseth managed just one top-5 finish in six career starts at Pocono and recognized that with two stops at the 2.5 mile triangular speedway, the team would need to be strong there.
Kenseth started 25th on the grid but needed just 28 laps to get into the top-10. They stretched out the first fuel run to lead lap 49 and pick up the bonus points, but the machine ran dry and stalled coming down pit road. It cost Kenseth several seconds in the pits, but he stayed on the lead lap.
The team got the track position back when the caution came out after Dale Jarrett crashed hard in turn 1.
Kenseth came in for his final stop with 22 laps left. He left the pits 10th, but moved up to third as the leaders cycled through green flag stops. The #17 team finished third behind teammate Martin and Stewart, who won his first race of the year.
"I wasn't going to catch those guys," said Kenseth, who had his sixth top-5 finish of the season and second in the past three races. "We had about a third-place car out there."
The Roush team always has added incentive to do well at Michigan. It's the home track for the organization and this year they were celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ford.
The #17 rolled off the grid 21st and was into the top-10 within 35 laps. Kenseth surged up to fourth before a caution came out on lap 70. The team had an uncharacteristically slow pit stop and came out seventh. 50 laps later the crew made up for it with a 13.8 second stop that put Kenseth back in fourth.
Kenseth wasn't happy with the set of tires on the next run and dropped back to 10th. The final caution of the day came out with nine laps left. Kenseth moved up five positions after the restart and finished fourth while Kurt Busch steered his Ford into victory lane.
"It was a great team effort today," said Kenseth, who build his points lead to 185 over Dale Earnhardt Jr. "We had a great car overall, but it took some adjusting by the crew all day."
The #17 hasn't had much luck with the road courses on the Winston Cup circuit. Kenseth knew that good finishes at Infineon and Watkins Glen would go a long way in his championship aspirations, so he enlisted the help of his teammate Mark Martin, who has four road course wins to his credit, for some one-on-one instruction last April.
Kenseth had top-10 starting positions in both road course events in 2002 and followed up with a fourth-place qualifying effort at Infineon. He moved the DeWalt Taurus to third on the first lap and stayed in the top-10 throughout the first 35 lap run.
On the way to pit road for the first green flag stop, the left rear tire gave out on the #17 machine and ripped off of the car. Fortunately, Kenseth was close to pit road and managed to stay on the lead lap.
He restarted 24th and worked his way up to third as the leaders cycled through their pit stops. He was 21st with 18 laps to go and worked his way through to 14th for the checkered flag.
"We weren't ever great," Kenseth admitted. "That's a lot better than we've ever done here before."
With the schedule approaching the midway point of the season, Kenseth and the #17 team were rolling along nicely. They had a 174 point lead over Jeff Gordon in the championship standings and led the circuit with 13 top-10 finishes.
But Daytona has a way of turning the standings inside out. With full-field drafts, drivers can find themselves at either end of the pack in a hurry.
"This is one of those events where a lot of factors are taken out of the driver's hands," said Kenseth. "The point lead we have right now is a nice cushion, but we want to be protective of it without holding anything back week in and week out."
The team started 37th with a provisional for the night race. He hooked up with Busch early and drafted up to 15th within 10 laps. The crew pulled off a quick two-tire stop on lap 38th that vaulted the #17 to fifth place.
Kenseth missed his box pitting under yellow on lap 63 and dropped back to 27th. Five laps later, the right rear tire on Busch's #97 machine went down causing the car to spin and collect several cars. Kenseth evaded the melee and restarted 12th.
Roush rookie Greg Biffle took the lead with 20 laps to go and Kenseth moved up to second before coming in for a splash of fuel with four laps to go. Kenseth finished sixth and Biffle went on to his first Winston Cup victory.
"I can't say enough about Matt Kenseth," Biffle said from victory lane. "There aren't words to explain how he made me win this race tonight. They were going to go by us on the backstretch and Matt pulled down and sacrificed a spot for a win for me."
"I think we passed a real test over the past two weeks and I'm real proud of my guys for the way they've handled themselves," Reiser said as the team unloaded at Chicagoland. They brought the same car that Kenseth guided to a second place finish at Charlotte in May.
Kenseth moved through the field quickly, but wasn't able to get back on the lead lap. He finished 12th.
"We just made poor decisions," said Kenseth, who finished a lap down for just the second time in the first 18 races. "(We) got the wrong tires on the car and just the way the pit stops worked out and everything just got us so far behind we could just never come back from it."
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 4: Taking Control (November 26)
Part 5: Clinching the Cup (November 28)