Matt Kenseth clinched his first NASCAR Winston Cup championship this afternoon and the first for car owner Jack Roush, who has been competing full-time in the series since 1988. Thus, Kenseth becomes only the sixth different Ford driver to claim...
Matt Kenseth clinched his first NASCAR Winston Cup championship this afternoon and the first for car owner Jack Roush, who has been competing full-time in the series since 1988. Thus, Kenseth becomes only the sixth different Ford driver to claim the title and the first since Dale Jarrett in 1999.
The driver of the No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Taurus has posted one win, 11 top-five and a series-best 25 top-10 finishes in 2003. Kenseth's victory at Las Vegas in March served as the impetus for what became a consistent run to the championship and ignited a streak that saw him post 12 top-10 finishes in the next 13 races. He grabbed the points lead after a fourth-place finish at Atlanta in the fifth race of the season and has been alone at the top ever since.
The closest anyone has gotten since then came after the Richmond race in May when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. closed to within 20 points, but it eventually peaked at 436 points following the September race at Dover.
Part 1 of 2
MATT KENSETH - No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Taurus
"I don't know where to start really. It's a pretty cool day for us, obviously. Rockingham has a lot of meaning for us in a lot of ways. I won my first Busch Series race here. Jack and Mark won their first Cup race here together and now Jack won his first championship here, so this is a really cool place to do it at. I guess all year I tried not to think a lot about the championship, but even when we were way ahead I was hoping that this would be the place that we could wrap it up if we did do it because it's a really cool race track and it's got a lot of meaning for all of us."
THERE WAS SOME HARD RACING AT THE END.
"Yeah, we had to dig hard all day. We were a little bit behind. We were off farther than I thought we'd be starting the race. I thought we were gonna have a little better car than what we did, so we worked on it and finally found it in the middle of the race. We pulled a rubber out of the left rear and made enough adjustment to where we could at least run decent and run with the top five or top six times. After we did that, we were pretty competitive. Obviously, we caught a break when that caution came out and we stayed on the race track, so we caught some lucky breaks but we had a decent car, too."
DID YOU EVER REAM YOU WOULD BE HERE IN SUCH A SHORT TIME?
"No, not in my wildest dreams. Before Robbie called me to drive his Busch Series car, I felt like my time was past. I think I was 26 years old. I had a chance the year before to drive a Busch car one time and that deal never all worked out and I was back to Wisconsin driving ASA cars, so I didn't think I'd ever get the chance again to be honest. I'm real lucky that Robbie Reiser and his dad called me to give me the opportunity to drive his car and real lucky that Mark Martin got me hooked up with Jack to start with and got me testing with him. He's taught me so much, especially my first few years and I can't thank him enough for all the help that he's given me. He's really guided me a lot and told me the do's and don'ts - not just on the track but off - and he's a great guy to learn from."
WHAT'S THE FIRST THING JACK SAID TO YOU AFTERWARDS?
"I don't know. I don't think he really said much, to tell you the truth. He was about the fourth person and I saw and he just said congratulations. I've been trying so hard not to think about it. I've had a lot of stuff bottled up inside the last couple of months and I really didn't know what to say."
JACK ROUSH, Car Owner - No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Taurus
"What I said to Matt, I'm sure, was 'thanks.' I felt thanks to Matt for trying and for being there, for hanging with me. We've had some ups-and-downs with the program with Matt - a lot of them with Mark as we've tried to get smart enough to do this. My feelings are that I feel like I just crashed through a plate glass window. It's been painful getting through it. I've fussed and I've complained more than I should about things that probably didn't mean much in the last month really, and in more recent days, but it's really been tough emotionally to think about the four times we were there with Mark and just coming up short. We've learned to come up short and to be able to get through it this time with Robbie and with Matt, it's just a tremendous relief."
CAN YOU ENJOY IT NOW?
MATT KENSETH: "Oh yeah. I've kept all of my emotions and everything bottled up for so long. I don't think I'm a pessimist, but I don't like to count my chickens before they hatch. Even though everybody said they thought I was a shoe-in these last two races, I don't count on it until they say it's over and it's official. Anything can happen and sometimes it seems like if it can, it happens to us. I still haven't really had time to let it sink in. I know it's gonna sink in. I've got so many emotions going through me that I don't really know what I think right now. I'm just so thankful to have this opportunity. There are so many great race car drivers that never get the chance to do this. I've been real lucky to be with a top-notch team right from my rookie year and to be in equipment that was capable of winning races, and having an owner like Jack that will get us anything we want, and having four really great teammates to help us.
"I've been real blessed to have Robbie Reiser as my crew chief and my friend for the last seven or eight years and that's helped too."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR RACE TODAY AND THE WEEKEND IN GENERAL?
"First of all, I thought we qualified great compared to the last two weeks. Yeah, we were off a little bit in the beginning of the race and I was scared to free the car up too much. The car goes through big changes here with the way the asphalt is. If you start off just right, you always back up too much at the end of the run. We had the car too tight to be too good at the end of the run. They'd get away from us so much in the beginning. We finally made some adjustments and I think we had it real competitive. I think we had at least a top-10 car and got very fortunate when that caution came out that I wasn't all the way on pit road and I could get back to the race track and not lose those laps. That helped us a lot, but we did get the car better towards the end when we needed it. I was pretty frustrated at times in the race because after the restarts I'd get passed by seven or eight cars and then I'd have to work the next 40 laps to pass them all back, so I was a little frustrated about how slow our car was on the short run, but in the long run I thought we had a pretty competitive car."
TONY STEWART THOUGHT THIS WOULD BE AN APPROPRIATE PLACE FOR YOU TO CLINCH. DO YOU AGREE?
"Oh, for sure. The sooner the better. Obviously, I wouldn't have had to go get ulcer medicine if we would have clinched it a few weeks ago - or as much ulcer medicine when I get older - but this is definitely a special place. That was a really happy day for all of us. We didn't have a sponsor on our car. Jack was in the process of helping us out at that time. I remember he was on the roof and excited when we won that race and it was a really cool day for us. Everything went good. We were able to win right at the end on the last lap, so this place definitely has a special meaning. I think it probably does for Jack and Mark because they won their first race together here - Mark as a driver and Jack as an owner at this race track. If I had to pick one track on the circuit if it could happen early, this would definitely be it. I think this is a cool race track. It drives like a short track and I think it kind of has a special meaning for all of us."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR CAREER AND THE FIRST CALL FROM ROBBIE TO WHAT'S HAPPENED SINCE?
"That's a long story, but Robbie and I used to race against each other in Wisconsin. I guess everybody probably knows that. He was down trying to run his own Busch team, but he couldn't keep a sponsor as a driver. He shut the team down and then a driver came to him with a sponsor and said, 'We'd like to run with your equipment if you want to be a car owner.' He started that deal and things didn't go well. Robbie gave me a call up kind of out of the blue to come and drive one of his cars because the driver he had wasn't working out. So, anyway, moved all my stuff. I ran Nashville my first race and the next week I went to Talladega and raced. That's where I met Mark. I met Mark in the driver's meeting there, actually. I guess he heard of me from racing in Wisconsin. We both drove for the same owners up there, obviously at different times, but we drove for the same people and there were a lot of the same race tracks. He called me the next week and said he wanted to help me. He didn't know how he was gonna do it, but he wanted to get me hooked up to Jack. I think he basically begged Jack to give me an opportunity. To do what, I don't know, but they signed me up real early. I've actually had a contract with Jack since 1997, since Mark and I met. I did a lot of testing with them. Even if I didn't drive a lot, I went to a lot of his tests and learned a lot from Mark and Jimmy Fennig. I just tagged along a lot and tried to absorb as much as I could and learn as much as I could." WHAT ABOUT THE LAST 10 LAPS? "There's no special satisfaction beating him (Newman). You want to beat everybody. We weren't real great on short runs. I was happy we restarted third and finished fourth. That was cool. It was also neat that Bill won today, too. That was my first Winston Cup ride. I drove Bill's car one race, so that was kind of neat too."
DO YOU THINK IT'S MORE SPECIAL TO WIN IN A FORD, WHICH A LOT OF PEOPLE FEEL IS AT A DISADVANTAGE RIGHT NOW?
"I'm real proud to win it driving a Ford and driving it for Jack. I thought last year we were real competitive as a group and at the beginning of this year we were. As the year has gone on, it seems like we as a group on average have fallen off a little bit. I think Chevy designed a new car this year and Pontiac did and Dodge had a different nose and they've had a whole year to work with it. With our car, we've been working on it for three or four years or whatever it was and we're sort of tapped out. I think the nose and tail will help it a little bit. I don't know if that's enough or not, but it will make the cars better than what they are today. Hopefully, they'll be a little closer next year and we can keep up a little more. It seems like, as a group, we can't keep up quite as good. I don't know why that is, but it just doesn't seem like we can quite hang in there on new tires right away."
WHAT WERE YOU THINKING EARLY IN THE RACE WHEN EVERYBODY WAS HITTING EACH OTHER?
"It felt like I was stepping through a minefield. Every time we'd get a chance to get going, there would be an accident. A lot of them were in front of us. We got ran into the back one time and there was just a lot of stuff going on. It seemed like I was right in the middle of it and I saw a lot of stuff happen today. I was hoping I wasn't gonna be in it, but I don't know what I was thinking. I was thinking to get some laps in because these races the last two weeks have seen really, really long to me. I was just hoping we didn't get caught up in any trouble. There was just a lot of stuff going on and a lot of close calls today."
WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE THE LAST COUPLE OF MONTHS?
"I'm sure Mark could tell you, I think the pressure would be a lot more if it was close, but, yet, we've led it so long. In the middle of the year I got kind of spun out in August and September a little bit by reading a lot of people's columns and reading what they're saying about winning one race and reading that nobody has ever had this big of a points lead and blown it. Those things actually add pressure because I don't want to be the guy that goes in the record book that had that big of a lead and blew it. I think there's always pressure until it's over because anything can happen at any given time. I know one thing, I feel a lot lighter today. I feel like the world has lifted off my shoulders today somewhat."
DOES THIS EASE THE ANGUISH FROM YOUR PREVIOUS TITLE LOSSES?
"Things certainly don't look as dark to me today as they have the days preceding and the years preceding. As I said, we've come close with Mark four times and this would have been once for Matt, if we weren't able to close the deal. We have had a pretty good year, but we did break an engine at Talladega. I would have taken the responsibility for that on my own shoulders if we had come short by the points we lost at that event. I am not gonna go back and regurgitate and re-visit the frustrations we've had in the past. I'm very happy that whatever I had going against me, whether it was between my ears or it was a dark cloud that was hanging over me, I didn't pass that onto Matt this year and I'm just glad to be through that and hope we don't have to go back there again."
WHEN DID YOU THINK YOU WOULD WIN THE TITLE?
"When we came back after the engine problem and the crash that we had - we gave up 200 points or whatever it was in two weeks. Then we had another good race and stabilized, and the race after that we picked up a few points. That's when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. If Matt stayed healthy and if we didn't have an epidemic of broken parts that would get on us early in the race, it was probably gonna be OK. But I wouldn't go further than probably."