Chicagoland: This Week in Ford Racing

This Week in Ford Racing July 6, 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 DEWALT Tools Taurus, comes into this weekend's Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway fifth in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series point...

This Week in Ford Racing
July 6, 2004

NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series

Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 DEWALT Tools Taurus, comes into this weekend's Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway fifth in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series point standings. He was this week's guest on the weekly teleconference.

MATT KENSETH - No. 17 DEWALT Tools Taurus

AFTER A RACE LIKE SATURDAY NIGHT WHERE A WRECK TAKES YOU OUT EARLY, IS IT GOOD TO KNOW YOU STILL HAVE A CHANCE AT THE CHAMPIONSHIP? "Yeah, I mean that's the good news. We've had a pretty tough four out of the last five races, so we're ready to start finishing good and get some momentum back and get everything rolling before we get to those last 10. But the good thing is we're still in the top 10 and, really, I guess we're only 25 points or 20 points out right now if it was race 26, so we need to get back up in there and be more solid in the top 10 so in case we do have more problems we don't drop out of it. That is the good thing that with this new system you can make mistakes and have problems and have things break early in the year and can still run for the championship, so that's definitely a lot different than it ever has been before."

DOES THIS FEEL LIKE A HOMECOMING? IS THERE MORE OF A CONFIDENCE LEVEL YOU HAVE THERE? "I don't necessarily have more confidence going to Chicago as far as our performance is concerned or anything like that, but it definitely is fun to go to Chicago. It's one I really look forward to going to. You see a lot of race fans from the Midwest - from the area where I grew up and where I raced at in the past - so that's the closest track we go to from my hometown in Wisconsin. So it's exciting to go up there. I always get to see a lot of family and friends, a lot of race fans that used to watch us race short track stuff when we first started, so that definitely makes it a little extra exciting."

A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE COMPARED YOU TO DAVID PEARSON. HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL? "That's definitely a big compliment. Whenever somebody ever compares you to somebody who had done such great things and somebody who is a legend and was one of the best around, that's definitely a huge compliment. You've just got to keep that all in check and concentrate on trying to do it every week, but whenever you do get a compliment like that, it definitely makes you feel good."

DID YOU EVER STUDY ANY FORMER DRIVERS TO EMULATE THEIR STYLES? "I've watched a lot of racing in the past. When I was growing up whenever it was on TV back then I'd try to catch some of the races and I knew what was going on and I watched people. As far as when I started racing, I tried to base my style off of Mark Martin. He taught me a lot when I came here and when I started racing in the Busch Series and got to know him. He taught me a lot on what was the right thing to do and what wasn't the right thing to do. Things to do on the track and off the track. I tried to soak in as much of that as I could and tried to act like that the best I could."

HAS WINNING THE TITLE CHANGED YOUR LIFE AT ALL? "Not really. It hasn't changed my life at all day to day, what I enjoy doing, what I don't enjoy doing, how we act or how we live our life or any of that stuff. It hasn't really changed any of that or how we approach racing or what our goals are and our aspirations and hopes. It hasn't really changed that. The only thing that's maybe changed a little bit is that I'm maybe a little bit more recognizable in public, where you have more people coming up to you in certain places. Maybe a little bit more media attention on us or maybe expectations being a little bit higher from our fans or sponsors - things like that. All the things that go along with doing good, those things have changed a little bit. But, other than that, it hasn't really changed anything else. I don't really feel any different than I felt at this time last year. I definitely had a sense of accomplishment after the year was over last year and we won the championship, but after that we're trying to do it again this year and trying to go out and do good this year. This sport is so funny. The thing that everybody remembers, especially me, is your last race and when things aren't going exactly as you planned, you're thinking more about how to get the thing turned around and how to get the thing better more so than you're thinking about how great things went for us last year."

CAN YOU TELL IF IT'S CHANGED THE WAY OTHER DRIVERS VIEW YOU? "I can't tell, but I don't think it has. I don't think it's made a lot of difference. I mean, it's definitely cool to have won a championship, especially in the format that it was last year and has been for so many years before that. To have to do the job all year long was definitely really, really cool to be a part of that group. Maybe a little bit, but I don't think that it's really changed that much."

DO YOU THINK WINNING THE TITLE UNDER THE PREVIOUS SYSTEM IS TOUGHER THAN THE ONE TODAY? "That's hard to answer until the whole season is over. If Jimmie Johnson and Dale, Jr. keep up the year that they have this year and don't make any mistakes and don't have anything break and they're 400 points ahead of the rest of us at the break and they still win the championship, then I'll say it was tough to win. But if something happens. For an example, let's use myself. We've made some mistakes and I've done some dumb things on the track. We broke a motor. We've had things happen where we've made mistakes that usually a championship team can't do and yet, if we stay in the position we're in right now, with 10 races to go we can still have a good shot at the championship. I don't know. I still have mixed feelings about it. I hope that whoever does the best job all year still gets to win the championship. Just for an example, Jimmie Johnson does do a great job for the first 26 races and has one part of bad luck in the last 10 races where if he would have had it early, it wouldn't have mattered, has one thing of bad luck in the last 10 races and loses it to somebody that had a lot of bad luck and was 400 or 500 points behind, I don't think that would be fair. But that's the new set of rules we have and you just have to take the first 26 weeks kind of like a qualifying round to qualify for the last 10 races to run for a 10-race season, basically, for a championship. That's the way we're all kind of looking at it and trying to stay in that top 10. But I definitely think it's easier to have a shot at the championship at the end of the year with this season for sure. I don't think we've ever seen 10 drivers be within 45 points with 10 races to go. I don't think that's ever happened before, so it obviously gives a lot more people that opportunity at the end of the year."

SO YOU SEE SIMILARITY WITH THE SEASON JOHNSON IS HAVING THIS YEAR AND YOURS FROM LAST YEAR? HAVE YOU GUYS TALKED ABOUT IT? "That's something I've never talked to him about. That's something I'm gonna have to talk to him about. They're really good. They're doing what we did last year, except that they're actually running a little bit better. They've run really good. We ran really good in the beginning of last year. At times we ran really good and at times we ran mediocre, whereas they've been running pretty tough all year long. They definitely have some stuff figured out and definitely have some advantages this year from being smart and figuring out how to get their cars to go fast. So they've been doing really great. You've just got to see how it plays out towards the end. Whoever carries all the momentum into that last 10 races is gonna be tough to beat. It's not just gonna be one or two or three cars - it's gonna be out of those 10 cars, whoever is carrying the most momentum is gonna have a good shot. If you look at how Jeff Gordon has been the last four weeks, if that would have been week 27, 28, 29 and 30 and he had all that momentum, he would be pretty tough to beat. So it's so hard to tell until we get towards the end of the deal and see how everybody is running."

DO YOU COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR TEAMMATES ON THE RADIO AT ALL DURING THE RACE? "You can, but we very seldom do it - especially at a big track like that when we're all two- and three-wide and doing all kinds of stuff. But there has been times where I've clicked over and maybe talked to Mark or somebody - 'if you need something during the race' or whatever - but most of the time I'll flip on Burton's channel and talk smart to him or something under cautions or he'll do the same to me. It's usually us two talking to each other just giving each other a hard time during a caution or some time when it doesn't matter. Very seldom do we use it for business, but there was a time last year where we were gonna lose the draft and Mark was also in that deal of losing the draft, so we talked a little bit during that time to try to get teamed up and stay in line and get caught back up to that draft, but I can only think of maybe one or two times in five years that we've really used it for anything like that."

HOW HAS YOUR COMMUNICATION BEEN AT THE BIG TRACKS WITH YOUR TEAMMATES? THE HENDRICK GUYS SEEMED TO DO THAT WELL AT DAYTONA. "It depends where you're at. When you have four or five teammates in the front all in a line, it's easy to communicate and you're gonna work together. Everybody is just gonna follow each other. If the odd duck pulls out of line and he's not your teammate, you're all gonna go to the other lane and shuffle him out. So he had everybody up front and all the teammates up there working together and it's really easy to do, but it doesn't happen that often where you all have cars that are that fast and you can get them all packed together at the same time."

HAVE THERE BEEN ANY INSTANCES THIS YEAR WHERE YOUR STRATEGY HAS CHANGED BECAUSE THE POINT SYSTEM HAS CHANGED? "No."

HAVE YOU STARTED TO THINK ABOUT THE LAST 10 RACES AND BEGUN PREPARING? "We started thinking about the last 10 races the day the point system was announced, honestly. We've sort of done some preparation. We're trying to design some new stuff on our chassis and some new stuff on our bodies - some testing and starting to get ready to know what we want to build for the last 10, but with the bad races we've had the last four or five races, we've got to be careful not to be out of the top 10. If you get too worried about the last 10 and don't worry about these, you're gonna be out of that top 10. It's too competitive to be acting like that, so we need to stick to it and work hard to stay in the top 10. We haven't used any tests really yet. We've used one one-day test and then the Dayton test is mandatory of course, so we've tried to save our tests and we're gonna try to test at a lot of those tracks the last 10 races to have ourselves ready for that. There's gonna be a balance there and that's something we're gonna have to figure out this year because you can't get everybody burned out testing when you've got to concentrate on racing the last 10, but there are a couple of tracks in there that I feel like we've always been sort of weak at the last few years - that we need to spend the time and test and try to be good at them. But, first and foremost, is to make sure that you're comfortably in that top 10 so you have a chance to run for that last 10-race championship."

ARE YOU SHOCKED ONLY 10 GUYS ARE IN POSITION TO COMPETE FOR THE TITLE RIGHT NOW? "No, not at all. I was pretty confident there wasn't gonna be more than 10. I mean, last year I think that even though we had an exceptional year, I think we were seven hundred-and-some-odd points ahead of 10th at the 26-race mark. So I'm not at all surprised at that. We never planned on having more than 10. I didn't think there was hardly any chance that there would be more than 10 cars."

ARE THE MILE-AND-A-HALF TRACKS A LOT DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER? "They're all a little bit different and a little bit unique. Charlotte is a lot different than Kansas. It's a lot different with the tri-ovals and Texas is a little bit different, so they're all a little bit different. Some of them are really, really great and lend to awesome racing. Some of them don't lend to quite as good a racing, but are still good race tracks. I like them all. They're all a little bit different of a challenge to run at. Charlotte and Atlanta are probably my favorite two mile-and-a-halves by far. Chicago, Texas - I really like Texas, but Chicago and Texas are probably a little bit more difficult to pass at just because they're really, really fast the way their designed and you can really get around their quick and it makes it tough to pass other cars. But they're all good and they all are just a little bit different."

WHAT IS A GROOVE FOR THOSE OF US THAT DON'T KNOW? "Basically, when you get to a new race track and it has new asphalt, all of the asphalt on the whole track is brand new and asphalt has maximum grip when it's new. When you have new asphalt at a track, you're gonna run around the groove that is the shortest, so you're gonna run right by the white line because that's the shortest distance around the track. If all of the asphalt has the same grip, you're obviously gonna run the shortest way around there to get around the track the quickest. What happens through the years and through the laps of racing is that you start wearing out the bottom of the race track where all the cars are running and what that does is it wears the asphalt out and leaves the stones in there. It has less area on the tire, basically, I guess is how I can explain it. It kind of looks like sandpaper. When it's new, it looks like a sheet of paper - it's smooth. When it gets wore out, it looks like a piece of sandpaper and has all these little pieces sticking up pushing on the tires, so you just try to move up and find some of that new asphalt that hasn't been run in yet. The new asphalt, making more grip on the outside, will compensate for the longer distance going around there. Therefore, you can kind of work in a second groove and run side-by-side."

YOUR THOUGHTS ON JEFF GORDON'S ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND HIM AS A RIVAL? "His accomplishments and his career kind of speaks for itself. If you open up the book and look at the stats, there's not a lot you can say about that. He's obviously one of the best and he's gonna go down as one of the greatest in history. They have the potential of putting it together at any time and put a run together like what they're doing right now and that's dangerous for everybody when you have to race against somebody like that. He can get a run put together, especially with this new point system, at the end and he can just drive away from the whole thing and just dominate the series. So they have that potential to do that at any time and it doesn't surprise you when they put things together like that."

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE PACKAGE THAT MAKES A TEAM SUCCESSFUL? "There's a lot of lucky breaks or however you want to put it that goes into this sport. Not running something over and getting a flat tire - just all kinds of different things. Like we were in the wrong place at the wrong time at Daytona when a car broke right in front of us and got in an accident. So some things like that can happen that are out of your control, but most of it is all about the people. I think it's more about the team and the equipment that they build you more so than the drivers. I think everybody over here is a great driver and in the right equipment can go out and win races and contend for championships. So I really believe it's about the people and how hard they want to work, how good the communication is and how dedicated they are toward the team. I think it's real important. Like in our case, we've kept the same team basically together for four or five years and Robbie has been leading them the whole way and a lot of those guys have been there and been really loyal toward our team and that's gone a long way towards our success."

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT A GREEN-WHITE-CHECKERED FINISH? "The positive is you would see a green-flag finish. That's the positive. The negatives are putting us in a two-lap shootout at the end of the race. Depending on the track, depending on the situation, depending on which car you're driving and where you are on the track can be a dangerous situation for all of us drivers. Some crazy stuff could happen when you group everybody up for two laps at the end of a 500-mile race and say, 'Have at it boys.' So that's one of the drawbacks. Another drawback is that our races are 500 miles long. A lot of them are 500 miles long - 400, 500, 600 miles long - and when you do a fuel strategy and have everything timed out just to the end of the race and, all of a sudden, you can get a caution at the end and maybe run six or seven laps longer than what the distance is, you could have somebody who did their strategy perfect out there leading the race and running out of gas or not winning because of that. So I have mixed feelings on it. If somebody is driving away from the field and has a three-second lead with three laps to go and there's a caution, well, he had a three-second lead and was gonna win the race anyway. Let him win the race. Who cares if it's under caution? But, yet, on the other hand where there are some races where you're side-by-side and it looks like it's gonna be a nail-biter down to the finish and there's a caution with three laps to go, well then that's very disappointing. I don't know. The only other drawbacks I can think of too is it seems like with all these new rules and lucky dog procedures and all this stuff we've got going on, every time we create one of them we seem to create more problems around it and more confusion around it and it's hard to work through that. It seems like they're trying to do a lot right now in a little bit of time and it's getting kind of confusing I think for the fans, for the drivers and for the teams to figure it all out."

DO YOU THINK THEY'RE GETTING PRESSURE FROM THE FANS OR MEDIA TO MAKE A CHANGE JUST FOR CHANGE SAKE? "I don't really know. I don't know the answer to that question. They've always been good about not making knee-jerk decisions and I think when you do make a knee-jerk reaction you have the potential to create a lot of problems without it. I don't know. I guess I'd like to see what the fans like to see, but I think nine out of 10 times the guy who is in front - if there's a caution with two laps to go - is probably gonna be the winner anyway. He worked all day to get it and if he's in that position, he deserves to win the race and I don't think deserves to have a two-lap dash and maybe get run into from behind or whatever and not win the race when they've been leading all day and were in position to win it. But, like I said, on the other hand, there are certain instances where it would be a really great race and it gets spoiled by the caution. So I can sort of see both sides of it and I have mixed emotions on it. I can see where sometimes it would be fun and maybe could benefit you and it could be a great race, but I can see where it could maybe be a disaster, too. So it's hard to tell. Every situation might be a little bit different."

WILL THE SAFER BARRIER AT CHICAGO NARROW WHAT ALREADY IS A NARROW GROOVE? "That won't have any affect on that at all. We've run so far on the bottom of the track at Chicago that there is 50 feet that we haven't even thought about using yet, so that 30 inches isn't really gonna make any difference. They've done a pretty good job. There are some tracks that maybe need to be tuned up a little bit, where the entrance and exit of the corner maybe blends in a little smoother so it doesn't take away some room. At Chicago, the entry won't be a problem but I don't know where it ends up on the exit. Anytime you can put them in, it makes it better and makes you feel a little bit better and a little bit safer out there. You're running awfully, awfully fast at Chicago. To me, it seems like the second-fastest track that we run at as far as how it feels and there are situations where you could hit that wall pretty hard. So it's a good place to have it."

WHAT IS THE COMFORT LEVEL YOU HAVE AT A TRACK THAT HAS THE BARRIER AND ONE THAT DOES NOT? "It's not a big difference, but when you get used to looking at it every week and then you go somewhere where it's not on the corner, you maybe think about it more than you used to. You used to just think about, 'Well, all the walls are cement. That's just the way it is and that's the way it's always been.' Where now when they're making the SAFER barrier and you go somewhere where they're not up yet you're like, 'Ooh, I wish they had SAFER barriers.' Obviously, they're putting them at all the tracks. NASCAR has done a great job of going forward and getting all that stuff implemented and tested and getting it put up at all the tracks to make all the tracks safer. So it's definitely a good feeling anytime they make the environment safer. The cars, pit road, the track - whenever they make any safety improvements it always makes you feel a little bit better."

ANY OTHER SAFETY IMPROVEMENTS THAT SHOULD BE BROUGHT IN NOW? "I can't think of anything off the top of my head. I think they've done a good job of trying to address issues as they've come up and I also think they've done a good job of trying to look ahead to issues that could possibly come up that maybe aren't there yet. So I think you're always looking at trying to make the inside of the car safer. We tried to make it a lot safer for your head and neck and all the injuries that were occurring. And then got to looking at fire and how hard it is to get out of the cars and now they're trying to get it to where it's safe inside but we can still get out when they're on fire and how to get the fires out. But I think they're trying to stay a step ahead of everything they can to keep them safe."

-ford-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Jimmie Johnson , Mark Martin