Part 5: Clinching the Cup
One year ago, Kenseth twice came back from being a lap down and went on to his fourth win of the season under the lights at Richmond. This year, Kenseth started 18th and was fighting a loose race car throughout the early laps.
Kenseth stayed out to gain track position when the caution flew again on lap 112. He jumped to sixth and raced with the leaders for the next 100 laps. Kenseth brought the Smirnoff Ice Triple Black Ford in for service under caution on lap 318 and restarted ninth.
Kenseth narrowly avoided disaster with 19 laps to go. Jeff Burton and Robby Gordon made contact a car length in front of Kenseth, but he dropped down the track and avoided the wreck.
Kenseth held on for a ninth place finish while Ryan Newman went on to his series-high sixth win. Kevin Harvick, who was making a hard charge at Kenseth in the points, was running second in the closing laps when he was punted by Ricky Rudd setting off a post-race confrontation between the two teams.
"We didn't have the night we wanted," Kenseth said. "We were way off in the beginning and I spun out. At times we had a real good car."
New Hampshire II
With 10 races to go in the season, the #17 team had built up a comfortable 418 point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the championship standings. But after leading the circuit with five wins one year ago, Kenseth was anxious to pick up his second win of the season.
"We've had a good amount of consistent races," said Kenseth, who led the field with 20 top-10 finishes. "But it would be good to put an exclamation on things by getting back to victory lane."
Kenseth rolled off the starting grid in 19th and needed just 36 laps to work his way into the top-10. He extended his fuel run to lead lap 87 and picked up five bonus points before coming in for fuel and tires.
Kenseth held a top-10 position for until the first caution on lap 125. Jeff Gordon and Michael Waltrip made contact coming into the pits. Gordon slid through Jimmie Johnson's pit and hit three members of the #48 team. They escaped the incident without injury and continued to service Johnson's Chevy.
With 107 laps left in the race, Kenseth came in to top up the tank for the final run of the day. The strategy cost the #17 team some spots on the track, but put them in position to finish the race without another stop.
They restarted the race 19th but quickly jumped into the top-5. They grabbed a few more drops of fuel with 10 laps to go to be sure that they didn't run out on the track. Kenseth made up two spots in the closing laps and picked up his second straight seventh place finish. Johnson earned the win.
The circuit returned to Dover with a whole new look. After a mid-race wreck at New Hampshire rendered his car undriveable, Dale Jarrett came to a stop just before the start-finish line. The field came by racing for position and just missed the #88 car and certain disaster. Before the Dover race, NASCAR announced that the field would be frozen as soon as a caution comes out and there would be no more racing back to the line.
With qualifying cancelled on Friday due to Hurricane Isabel, Kenseth inherited the pole for Sunday's race.
Kenseth was having trouble with a loose machine and plummeted to 14th when the caution flew on lap 81. The team made adjustments on pit road trying to tighten the Ford through the turns.
Kenseth was in danger of going a lap down when the caution came out again on lap 165. He was 15th on the restart and dropped back to 17th on lap 235. The car picked up in the second half of the race and Kenseth worked his way up to 14th on lap 343.
With 25 laps remaining, Kenseth surged from 11th to eighth before teammate Greg Biffle passed him with 10 laps to go. Kenseth finished ninth.
"I'm really ashamed of the way we ran. We were way off," Kenseth said after climbing out of his Ford. "This is my favorite track, but we just haven't run well lately."
Kenseth used a provisional to start 37th at Talladega and was looking for another top-10 finish to follow up his ninth place run in the April race at the 2.66 mile super speedway.
The #17 car worked the draft early in the race and combined with teammate Kurt Busch to get into the top-5 on lap 46. He led lap 52 before making a two-tire green flag stop. When he came back out, Kenseth hooked up with Earnhardt, who had won the previous four events at Talladega, and jumped up to fourth.
The DeWalt Ford was running seventh on a restart with 40 laps left in the race. Kenseth made his way back to eighth on lap 152 and made up four more positions on the next lap. He was in second by lap 154.
Kenseth dropped down to pass Rusty Wallace for the lead with 31 laps left in the race. He tucked back in line behind the #2 to stay in the draft when the engine let go. He dropped down below the yellow line and the field blew by.
The final caution came out after Elliot Sadler's spectacular crash. The #38 car flipped several times before coming to rest on the grass. Sadler escaped without injury. Waltrip led Earnhardt to the checkered flag.
"I thought we were pretty conservative on all our stuff but we must not have been because something broke," said Kenseth, who finished 33rd and had his first DNF of the season. "Hopefully our stuff will make it to the end for the rest of the year."
After a 32nd place finish at the new Kansas Speedway in 2001, Kenseth had a seventh place run one year ago. The team was looking to rebound from a terrible day at Talladega and were looking forward to a good run at the 1.5 mile oval.
Kenseth crashed in practice on Friday and was just off the pace in qualifying his backup. He took a provisional and started 37th.
Kenseth was following Michael Waltrip when the #15 car got loose coming out of turn two and spun. Kenseth checked up the back end came around, sending the #17 car sliding across the grass. He crashed heavily into the infield retaining wall. Kenseth restarted the car and limped back to the garage with heavy damage to the front end.
"I can't see and I have no brakes," he radioed to the crew as he was coming down pit road. "You need to help me."
The team needed 45 laps to make enough repairs to get the DeWalt Ford back into the field. They made up seven positions and finished 36th.
"It's been a tough week," said Kenseth. "I still don't know what really happened. I though I'd slow up a little bit more in case (Waltrip) came down the track. The next thing I knew the thing just spun out on me."
The consecutive 37th place finishes allowed Harvick to gain 177 in the standings. Kenseth had a 259 point lead with six races to go.
The team returned to Charlotte on a mission. After a pair of sub-par finishes, the #17 crew was determined to get back on track.
"We've got a good car here and although we've had some trouble the last two weeks, we're going to regroup nicely and come back here stronger than ever," Reiser said before the race.
Kenseth qualified 29th and thrust his Ford to sixth by lap 58. He returned to the track after a four-tire green flag stop and took fifth place on lap 82.
On lap 117, Kenseth was running side-by-side with Harvick when the two cars nearly touched, causing the 17 to get loose.
"He's trying to wreck me without hitting me," Kenseth radioed to Reiser after straightening the car out. "He almost spun me out. I don't mean to be crabby Robbie. It's just frustrating."
The #17 car, which had a special copper paint job for sponsor Carhartt, had a power steering failure during the second half of the race. Kenseth muscled the car through the corners and continued his charge to the front.
Over the final 50 laps, he made up six positions and finished eighth.
"I'm real happy with where we finished," said Kenseth, who increased his points lead to 267 over Kenseth. "Nobody is going to have a perfect year and finish all the races without having anything break or making a mistake. We put it behind us."
Kenseth has had his troubles at Martinsville. In seven career starts at the .526 mile oval, he managed just two top-5 finishes. The team ran a testing session in the weeks leading up to the race to try to work their set-up.
"Martinsville has never been my greatest track," said Kenseth, who finished 22nd there in April. "I think we figured out some great things regarding how the car turns in the middle and I'm anxious to see if it will be enough to pick up our average finish here."
Kenseth started 14th and stayed around that position for most of the first 100 laps. He dropped back to 30th when he was the only car that pitted during a caution on lap 138.
Despite the mediocre run during the first half of the race, Kenseth stayed on the lead lap and avoided most of the wrecks that brought out 15 cautions during the race. He was running 14th with 100 laps to go and made up one more spot in the final 10 laps for a 13th place finish.
"I feel like I just won the race because this was a big hurdle for us," Kenseth said after climbing out of his Ford. "You usually not too excited about 13th, but we didn't lose a whole bunch of points and we finished (well) here and got one more race out of the way."
Kenseth had three straight top-10 finishes at Atlanta, including a fourth-place run in the spring race, and was anxious to unload at the 1.54 mile oval.
Kenseth was 3/10th of a second off the pace in qualifying and used a provisional to make the field. He started 37th. The field turned just 30 laps before heavy rains forced the race to continue on Monday.
One lap after the re-start the next day, Kenseth was tagged by Sterling Marlin when the cars were slowing for a wreck ahead of them. The contact caused minor damage to left rear of the Smirnoff Ice Triple Black Ford.
Kenseth was 39th when the green flag came out on lap 50. He made up 20 positions during the next 40 laps and was running third when the caution came out on lap 102. A broken header pipe slowed the #17 car and he dropped back to 15th on lap 200.
The crew blistered through a 13.05 second four tire stop under caution on lap 287 that helped Kenseth move up in the field. He finished 11th.
"We had something break and that hurt our performance a lot," said Kenseth, who left Atlanta with a 258 point lead on Earnhardt, who passed Kenseth for second in the standings. "The big picture looks good, but wish we could've run better."
Kenseth developed a love/hate relationship with Phoenix during his Winston Cup career. He lasted just 53 laps before wrecking and finishing last in his debut there three years ago. The following year, Kenseth had a miserable qualifying effort, but powered his way to a fourth place finish. One year ago, he surged from a 28th starting spot to his series-high fifth win of the season.
"I've been looking forward to going back," Kenseth said. "We've got three races to go and (are) going to some real good race tracks. I'm looking forward to that."
Kenseth started 37th, but made quick work of the competition at Phoenix, jumping to 14th on lap 43. He dropped a few spots before the crew pulled off a sub-13 second pit stop during the third caution of the day and helped the #17 Ford back to 14th.
The car was especially strong during long green flag runs and Kenseth made his way into the top-10 for the first time with 62 laps remaining. He was eighth for a restart on lap 275 and passed Mark Martin for sixth with 16 laps to go. Kenseth held the spot and had his 24th top-10 finish of the year.
"We haven't run as good the last few weeks," Kenseth said. "It feels good to come out and run competitively and at least have a car that if it was in the right position would have a shot to win."
The #17 team left Phoenix with a 228 point lead on Earnhardt and needed to finish 40th or better at Rockingham to clinch the title.
"It takes the pressure off," Kenseth said. "There are still two races to go, but it will be a lot easier going to Rockingham and Homestead knowing we don't have to finish quite as high."
Kenseth had four straight top-10 finishes at Rockingham, including a third-place run in the second race of 2003. He qualified 23rd and Reiser made clear what the team needed to do shortly before the green flag flew.
"We know what we got to do here," Reiser radioed to the crew on the final warm-up lap. "Let's be patient. Let the race come to us. Remember, we've got to work for it. Let's go get it."
Kenseth dropped back to 30th in the opening laps but worked his way up to 20th when the caution came out on lap 72. Shortly after the restart, Gordon and Ryan Newman got together and Tony Stewart smacked into the back of Kenseth when the #17 car slowed. Kenseth gathered the car back up and kept it from hitting the wall.
Reiser called the car in to make minor repairs and Kenseth returned to the track in 26th. They enjoyed a long green flag run and Kenseth worked his way into the top-10 by lap 223.
The caution came out again while the #17 car was coming down pit road 19 laps later. Kenseth was penalized when he returned to the track after passing the pit entrance, but remained on the lead lap with just five other cars.
Kenseth moved up to fifth with 100 laps to go and took the checkered flag in fourth place.
Kenseth won the 2003 Winston Cup championship.
It was Roush's first championship in the Winston Cup series.
"What a great race team," Kenseth said after celebrating with his team. "I'm just the lucky guy holding the wheel."
Kenseth was notorious for keeping a low profile throughout the entire championship run. While Harvick, Newman and Earnhardt were making most of the headlines, Kenseth and his team quietly went about their business and obliterated the competition with their consistency.
In stark contrast to the season to date, Kenseth was on a whirlwind tour in the final weeks of the season. He was on television in Los Angeles, Atlanta for a DeWalt appearance and New York for media appearances and a Knicks game. He also took in the Green Bay-Philadelphia NFL game the day after clinching the championship.
For the first time all season, the #17 team didn't need to worry about points.
"I feel like we can really relax a little bit," said Kenseth, who set a modern-day record with 33 consecutive weeks as the championship leader. "I'm really looking forward to going down there and racing."
Kenseth lasted just 28 laps in the season finale before the engine in his #17 Ford blew up. He finished a career-worst 43rd.
After watching the final 239 laps, the DeWalt team rolled the backup car out of the hauler so that Kenseth could run off a few donuts before driving the car into the official championship presentation.
"We had a great season," Kenseth said shortly after Richard Petty handed him the championship flag. "I'm real lucky to have such a great team behind me. It's a huge honor to be up there with all these great champions.
"It's been an amazing ride. It still blows my mind coming from the short tracks of Wisconsin to the day Robbie Reiser and his family gave me a chance to drive their Busch Series car. Robbie Reiser's been a great friend to me. He's been a huge part of my success and been there every step of the way."
Authors's note: Special thank you to Jeffrey Cheatham from Roush Racing for his updates and media information throughout Kenseth's championship run.