Kenseth maintains championship form

Kenseth maintains championship form

After running away with the championship in 2003, Kenseth and the ...

After running away with the championship in 2003, Kenseth and the #17 team spent an exhausting off-season talking to the media about their dream season. But during interview after interview, Kenseth knew that eventually the question was coming. 'Should a team that only wins one race be the champion?'

Race winner Matt Kenseth celebrates in victory lane.
Photo by Autostock.
Kenseth's dominating performance gave the season an anti-climactic ending and in January, NASCAR announced a new championship formula that puts the top 10 teams in a 10 race shootout to close out the season.

NASCAR denies that the change was a reaction to the one-sided title hunt in 2003, but in the Busch and Craftsman Truck Series, where the title chase came down to the final race in each division, only minor adjustments were made to the process.

"People were complaining about Matt running away with it and they changed it," says NASCAR on FOX commentator Darrell Waltrip, who won three series championships in the early 1980's. "People were not complaining about any other series and they left (them) alone."

In many pre-season predictions, the #17 team has been given little chance to repeat as champions. The motorsports media national poll predicted a seventh place finish for Kenseth while NASCAR Scene, The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated consistently ranked the #17 behind Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., all of whom won more races than Kenseth in 2003.

"I think it's the way (Kenseth) performed the last 10 races last year," suggests FOX analyst and former crew chief Larry McReynolds. "All you can base that off of is how people performed at the end of last year and they did not perform that well. Whether it was because of the championship pace or whatever, but that's what you base your predictions off of. They struggled to be a top-15 car."

After an amazing 22 top-10 finishes in the first 28 races in 2003, Kenseth closed the season with three top-10s in the final eight races. They finished 33rd or worse three times, including engine failures at Talladega and the season-finale at Homestead-Miami. With the new formula, Johnson would have won the championship with Kenseth finishing 10th.

"Until you've been in the position that he was in with a 400 point lead, it changes your strategy," Waltrip said. "You're racing to win a championship and it pays $5 million to win. You look at the last few races of the season as to how many points can I afford to lose and still come out on top? That's the way the system was in the past."

Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne fight to the checkered flag.
Photo by Dan Hamilton/Vantage Point.
Kenseth dominated the field two weeks ago at North Carolina Speedway and held off a late charge by Kasey Kahne to take the checkered flag in the second race of the season. He made a bold statement that his team isn't satisfied with being the final Winston Cup champion. They also want to be the first Nextel Cup champion.

"It feels good to come out of the box and win right away," Kenseth admitted after the race. "I don't think there was much bad you could say about our year last year and that was one of the most common things they talked about, so whenever you can do something that's good and maybe prove people wrong or prove that we can do things it always feels good."

After an off-week, the series moves to Las Vegas this weekend, the site of Kenseth's only win in 2003. He led 88 laps, including the final 32 and coasted across the finish line nearly 10 seconds ahead of runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. The win moved him to second in points behind Michael Waltrip. The following week, he grabbed the points lead and held it for the rest of the season.

Kenseth is looking for another strong run in Las Vegas in Sunday's UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX) to move him past Earnhardt, who leads Kenseth by seven points.

"I think we've got a better chance this year to run better than we ever have before since I've been at Roush Racing," Kenseth predicted. "I've been really excited about what I've seen go on and I think we're gonna have a good shot at doing some great things this year. Our goal is to be in that top 10 so we can have a shot at it again."

History is not on Kenseth's side. There have only been two repeat champions in the past 20 years. Dale Earnhardt did it three times and Jeff Gordon was the most recent with back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998. Since then, the average finish the year after a championship season is fifth.

Ironically, the new championship formula may work in Kenseth's favor. Past champions have complained that the drain on time and energy for media and sponsor requests during the off-season put the team at a disadvantage at the start of the following season.

With the new 'Chase for the Championship' formula, the #17 team needs to be among the top-10 after 26 races to have a legitimate chance to return to the head table at the year-end banquet in New York City. If the new system was in place in 2003, Stewart, who had six top five finishes in the final 10 races, would have finished second instead of seventh.

"If you can just stay in that top 10, you're gonna be within striking distance of that leader and have a shot at it with 10 to go," Kenseth explained. "It would have been a great rule for us in 2002 since we won two out of the last 10 races and would have had a shot at the championship.

"I'd like to be leading the points after 26 races," Kenseth continued. "But it might be fun to maybe have somebody else have a big lead - maybe have a 400-point lead - and watch them take 395 points from them instead of me. I hope we're there. I hope we're leading. I hope we're in that top 10 so we can fight for that championship at the end."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Darrell Waltrip , Matt Kenseth , Michael Waltrip , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne