What a difference one year makes. This time last year, Matt Kenseth was the defending series champion and had just claimed his second win in the first three races of the season. He was dominating the circuit and happily silencing the media and...
What a difference one year makes.
This time last year, Matt Kenseth was the defending series champion and had just claimed his second win in the first three races of the season. He was dominating the circuit and happily silencing the media and fans that criticized his unspectacular championship run in 2003.
Fast forward 12 months and Kenseth and his DeWalt Ford team are clearly struggling. They haven't visited the winner's circle for a points-paying event in 35 races. They have just one top-5 in the past 19 races. 34 laps into the season-opener at Daytona, Kenseth was out of the race with a blown motor. Two weeks ago, he started sixth at Fontana, but cut a tire with 20 laps to go and finished a lap down in 26th. He's 36th in points, trailing teammate Kurt Busch by 213 points after just two events.
Even more puzzling is that the Roush Racing stable has been strong to start the season. Greg Biffle won in California while Busch (third), Carl Edwards (fifth) and Mark Martin (seventh) also finished in the top-10 and each looked strong enough at different times to win the race. Busch and Martin also had top-10's in Daytona and Edwards finished 12th in his first Daytona 500.
"When things aren't going your way, it doesn't seem like you can do anything right and it's tough to get it rolling again," Kenseth said in Daytona. "I think it has to do with how you get the year started. At least for us, that's been true. If we get the year started strong, we usually can carry that out for a good amount of time."
Kenseth, who celebrated his 33rd birthday on Thursday, has won each of the past two races in Las Vegas. He's looking to get back on track and giving Roush Racing its sixth win in eight Cup races at LVMS on Sunday in the DaimlerChrysler 400 (2:00 p.m. Eastern on Fox).
"I'm really looking forward to heading to Las Vegas this weekend," said Kenseth, who will drive the same car he had in California two weeks ago. "We had a really strong car in Fontana, and could have walked out of there with a top-five finish if not for the tire problem towards the end of the race. Being the defending race winner in Vegas brings an added excitement to the upcoming race for our team, and our goal is to repeat the success that we found there last year."
It's not like 2004 was a disaster for the #17 squad. Kenseth was fifth at the cutoff for the final 10-race championship playoff and finished second in the first Chase for the Championship race in New Hampshire. But it was the team's only top-10 in the Chase and they finished the season eighth in points. Not terrible, but certainly disappointing after starting the year with a strong desire to erase any doubts that they were deserving champions.
Kenseth admits that the demands of being the series champion made it difficult to focus on the task at hand last year. It's like a band that has a hit with their debut album. They had their whole lives to come up with the first one and then the fans want another one just as good the next year.
"Every person can handle things in a different way and I did too much stuff last winter, I did too much stuff in the spring (and) I did too much stuff in the summer," Kenseth admitted. "I kind of burned myself out. I don't feel like it really hurt my performance, but it made my job a lot less fun and I wasn't as enthusiastic at the end of the year as what I have been any other year. My whole team was kind of like that too at the end of the year."
The Roush Racing team made some personnel changes in the off-season, shuffling the over-the-wall crew, which was one of their strongest assets leading up to the championship season. The #17 team won back-to-back pit crew championships in 2000 and 2001, but Kenseth knew that shakeup was necessary after 2004.
"We had some personnel move around and change a little bit and I think that will help," said Kenseth, who was the series rookie of the year in 2000. "I think every once in a while you have to mix it up and get some new blood in there and change things around and kind of get everybody energized. I think anything gets a little bit stale after a while no matter what you're doing, so it seems like everybody is excited, everybody is working good together."