Former champion Matt Kenseth off to a strong start
He struggled early last year, but already has a win this season.
By MIKE HARRIS
AP MOTORSPORTS WRITER
Frustration was Matt Kenseth's nearly constant companion during the first three months of the 2005 season.
While his four Roush Racing teammates were finding success in the early going, Kenseth was struggling. It took the 2003 NASCAR champion three races to register his first top 10 -- an eighth place at Las Vegas -- and the second top 10 didn't come until the 13th race, at Dover. His one and only victory, at Bristol, came in race No. 24.
What a difference a year makes.
Two races into the new season, Kenseth is rolling.
Only getting punted by Tony Stewart in the season-opening Daytona 500 kept Nextel Cup's quiet man from finishing in the top 10 in NASCAR's biggest race, and Kenseth still managed to salvage 15th.
Got some help
Last Sunday at California Speedway, Kenseth had what appeared to be the third-fastest car in the race. But engine failures for teammate Greg Biffle and -- in a bit of irony -- Stewart, gave Kenseth his 11th career victory and third place in the season points, both of which he can enjoy until the next Cup race, March 12 in Las Vegas.
"Sometimes it feels like there is justice in the world, so that feels good," Kenseth said. "I felt [at Daytona] we had a car that could have won.
"Our pit stop stuff has been going good, so it just feels incredibly good to come to the track and have everything kind of go right and all the stars align for us to get to Victory Lane. We haven't won a ton of races the last three years -- one or two a year -- and whenever you can win, it feels good. Hopefully, this will carry some momentum and we'll be able to get a few more wins this year."
Robbie Reiser, crew chief of the No. 17 Ford and Kenseth's longtime friend, isn't surprised by the strong start.
"This team is very good," Reiser said. "Looking at the cars we brought to Daytona and California, and the way they operated on pit road, they're here to race and they're here to win races and the championship this year."
Team deep in talent
Reiser pointed out that working for a team as deep in talent as Roush Racing -- which also fields Cup cars for Biffle, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and team newcomer Jamie McMurray -- gives all of them a big advantage.
"I think we build every year," Reiser said. "I think that the knowledge that we had last season to where we are this season becomes greater. We're always adding to the resources that we have. We're adding to the people we have. We're beefing up the engineering staff. We're working on the car.
"So, yeah, the pool gets bigger and bigger and bigger the more we build on it."
That could be real bad news for the rest of the Cup competitors, considering that Kenseth rallied in the second half of the season last year to join all of his teammates -- which then included Kurt Busch -- in the season-ending, 10-man, 10-race Chase for the championship.
Kenseth, who wound up seventh in the final standings in 2005, would rather not have to come from behind again to qualify for NASCAR's playoff.
"It feels good to get off to a good start," he said. "Last year, we didn't. But a couple of years before that, we did. I think we won early in '03 and '04, so, hopefully, we can keep it up all the way through the year -- keep the same level of energy and excitement and work on the cars and do all the stuff that we are right now."
Has confidence in team
Like Reiser, he has great confidence in Jack Roush's powerhouse team, which has won two of the last three Cup championships and last year had the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers (Biffle, Edwards and Martin).
"It's definitely a big confidence builder as a driver to get in cars like these," Kenseth said. "Things change every year. Like, this year, we have the new Ford Fusion. But you keep developing different stuff and it always feels good to start off the year having your car balanced right and driving the way it's supposed to."
Kenseth feels so good about the way things are going, he isn't even holding a grudge against Stewart for the incident in Daytona.
The two veteran drivers cleared the air in a conversation the day before the California event.
"I think we understand each other better after we talked," Kenseth said. "Everything is going to be fine on track. As you saw, we passed each other two or three times and gave each other room and did everything just like we did every other race before (Daytona).
"It's water under the bridge and this was a much better week for us."
Chances are, 2006 is going to be a much better season for Kenseth, too.
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