Part 4: Taking control
As the 2003 season progressed, Matt Kenseth and the #17 team went from contender for the title to a dominant force in the point standings. They racked up more top 10 finishes (18) than any other driver on the circuit. They also picked up seven top-5 finishes and finished on the lead lap in all but two of the first 17 races.
"We had an off-week there at Chicagoland," said crew chief Robbie Reiser. "But we're not getting down. A lot of it was my fault for not being as prepared as I needed to be, but that won't be happening this weekend."
The starting order for the first of two races at New Hampshire was based on points after qualifying was rained out on Friday. That gave the #17 team their first pole of the season.
Kenseth led the first lap and picked up five bonus points in the championship hunt. The car was a little tight and Kenseth was having difficulty in the freshly paved corners of the 1.058 mile oval. He hung around the top-5 for most of the first 100 laps but dropped to 12th after a four-tire stop on lap 101.
The DeWalt Ford moved up to seventh during the next 40 laps but lost track position when Kenseth slid through his pit stall during a yellow flag stop on lap 143. He restarted 16th on lap 151.
Reiser called his driver in twice to top up for fuel during a late-race caution. The strategy dropped the #17 machine back to 30th place, but Reiser knew that most of the cars in front of Kenseth would need another stop before the checkered flag.
The strategy worked and with 34 laps left to go, Kenseth was in fourth. He passed Ryan Newman for third with 12 laps to go and finished behind race-winner Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, who finished second.
"Robbie and the guys knew what they were doing and got it full of gas when we needed to," Kenseth said after the race. "We had a real good car all day."
The #17 team returned to Pocono with the same car that Kenseth drove to a career-best third place finish the month before.
"I think we're going to rely heavily on our notes to fall back on this weekend and see if we can't produce another great race setup," Reiser said.
Kenseth qualified ninth. It was the first time he had consecutive top-10 starts all season and was anxious for his second win of the season.
Kenseth run most of the race among the leaders, including 35 laps that he run out front. When the caution came out with 35 laps to go, Kenseth was the only car among the leaders that came in for fuel. He made up eight spots during the final run, but was disappointed that after running with the leaders most of the day, he finished 13th.
The driver was concerned that the team was more focused on the title chase than the win.
"I feel like we're running good enough to beat those guys and finish in front of them," Kenseth said. "We had a second or third place car and finished 13th with it. You just can't do that."
The conservative call in the pits the week earlier didn't help matters. Critics were saying that the #17 team wasn't willing to gamble for the win at Pocono.
"I've maintained all year, we're out here to try to win races," Kenseth said. "We're just going out and doing the best we can. I'm real thankful for the finishes we have, but we still do have a lot of racing to do and we've got to keep it up."
Kenseth qualified 17th for the Brickyard, and was looking to build on his third place finish from a year ago. He launched the Smirnoff Ice Triple Black Ford into the top-10 on the first lap.
On lap 36, with cars starting to make green-flag stops, Dale Jarrett lost control of his Ford and spun on pit road. The car came around and hit the jack man for the #88 team. Kenseth was nearly out of fuel and had to pit on lap 40 but the pits were still closed from the incident and Kenseth was forced to restart at the end of the longest line.
Kenseth charged back to fifth by lap 78 and jumped up to third on lap 111. He inherited the lead on lap 133 as the other leaders started to cycle through green flag stops to top up their fuel cells. Kenseth took two tires and fuel with 19 laps left. With three laps left, Kenseth passed Jamie McMurray for second, but wasn't able to mount a charge on Harvick, who won from the pole.
"It was a real great finish for us," said Kenseth, who had his best finish since Charlotte nine races earlier and added 54 points to his lead over Earnhardt in the standings. "It seemed like we came from behind a lot, but our car was really handling good."
Kenseth managed a top-10 finish in his first start at the Watkins Glen road course three years ago. He followed up with a 23rd place finish in 2001 and came home 33rd last year.
"I've said before that road courses aren't my specialty," Kenseth said. "That's one of the reasons we tested at both (road) tracks. We try to use the strategy of testing places that we've been weak in the past."
Kenseth was strong in qualifying and started the race in seventh. He dropped back to 10th after avoiding a pair of first-lap wrecks. He fought a tight race car and lost another eight spots by lap 36.
The DeWalt Ford made contact with Kevin Harvick 13 laps later and Kenseth brought the car in for tires, fuel and some work on the damaged left front fender. He dropped to 34th, but picked up 20 spots during a full-course caution on lap 51.
With 30 laps to go, Kenseth was back in the top-10 and comfortably making his way around the 11 turn, 2.45 mile circuit. He picked up a pair of spots in the closing laps and finished eighth -- his career best on a road course.
"We got lucky on the track," Kenseth admitted. "Today definitely went our way. We had a caution when we needed it and all the things happened the right way for us to finish decent."
The DeWalt team started 33rd and Kenseth was looking for another strong run at Michigan, where he picked up a fourth-place finish two months earlier. But the #17 Ford was very tight and Kenseth was having trouble making his way through the field.
They made up 11 spots with a two-tire stop on an early caution, but slid back to 34th by lap 55. Four tires and a track bar adjustment and Kenseth was much happier with his ride. He blasted his way to the top-5 by lap 84.
"It's good getting that finish but we just ran so bad today," said Kenseth. "We've slipped a little bit in the past couple of weeks and I'm not sure why."
The second Michigan race was the epitome of the season to date for Kenseth and the #17 team, who fought an ill-handling race car all day yet still managed to bring home a top-10 finish.
"We didn't get here by making mistakes," Reiser said. "You make your own luck. We got here by doing things and having things work out for us."
After some inconsistent races at Bristol, Kenseth came into the night race in August with three consecutive top-6 finishes at the .533 mile oval.
"I thought we had a great shot at a victory here last time," Reiser said. "Survivability is the key to finishing this event with fenders. This crew is due. This team is due and I'd love to get one at Bristol."
Kenseth started 10th and held a spot in the top-10 throughout the first 100 laps. He managed to avoid the carnage that brought out a record 20 cautions, but was clipped when teammate Kurt Busch and Casey Mears tangled on lap 159. The #17 suffered a flat left rear tire and was able to stay on the lead lap after a yellow flag stop.
The team worked to correct a loose condition during the next couple of stops and Kenseth started to find his groove. He worked his way through the field and up to sixth by lap 326. He ran with the leaders until running into the back of Jeff Gordon with 57 laps remaining.
Kenseth came in for tires under the yellow and restarted 18th. He rocketed back to the front of the field and was in fifth with 19 laps to go. He picked up one more position in the final laps and was closing on McMurray for third when the checkered flag flew.
Kenseth's points lead was building to near an insurmountable lead, but he knew that Darlington could be a major hurdle in his quest for the championship. His best finish in four career starts in the Southern 500 was 23rd. But this year, that would be his worst finish of the season.
With schedule changes and re-alignment coming in 2004, this would be the final running of the Southern 500 on Labor Day. The #17 team used a testing session at the egg-shaped speedway and hoped to improve their luck.
"This is a tough place to race," Kenseth said. "Since you're really up against the track, the information you get during a test is very helpful compared to some other places."
The information paid off quickly as Kenseth guided his Ford to a sixth place spot on the starting grid. He worked his way to the front and took the lead 66 laps into the 367 lap event.
Kenseth lost the lead to teammate Jeff Burton, who beat him off pit road during a yellow flag stop on lap 103. He took the lead back on the next lap, but brushed the wall in turn 1 and creased the front fender. He fell back to 11th within 50 laps and was fighting a loose race car.
The team took advantage of each caution to try to work the car back to its earlier form, but couldn't get it to handle the way it did before the brush with the wall. To make matters worse, Kenseth slid through his pit stall on lap 311 and dropped to 17th. He made up three spots in the closing laps and finished 14th.
"We had a great car today and I hit the wall early," said Kenseth, who put another 38 points on Earnhardt and led the standings by 389. "I just made a mistake that I usually don't make. I should have let Burton go and race the race track like you're supposed to do here."
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 final installment exclusively on http://www.motorsport.com
Part 5: Clinching the Cup (November 28)