AVONDALE, Ariz. – A year ago this weekend, a cloud hung over Matt Kenseth’s head. He arrived in the Valley of the Sun 17 points from the lead of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series standings with two races to go.
Yet the 2003 champion was frustrated. He was resigned to losing, and his pessimism was well-founded
That’s the irony of this weekend.
Kenseth enters the Checker Auto Parts 500 on Sunday having already been eliminated from contention in the Chase for the Nextel Cup and realistically out for the past month.
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But he is upbeat. He smiles and jokes easily.
These consecutive seasons have been as much a study in contrasts as Kenseth’s mood. To win the championship requires a strong performance and good luck, and for Kenseth the pendulum has swung one way and then the other in the course of 12 months.
“Yeah, the last few years we just can’t get ‘em both exactly the same time for whatever reason,” said Kenseth, who’ll start 18th on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
“Last year, everything went right for us in the Chase; we just ran terrible.This year, we’ve run really competitive – not as good as (defending champion Jimmie Johnson) and (Jeff Gordon) to be realistic, but we’ve run pretty darn competitive – but we had a lot of problems along the way.”
How competitive? Last Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway, Kenseth battled back-and-forth with Jimmie Johnson before conceding with three laps to go. Johnson collected his third consecutive victory, and Kenseth had his third straight top-five finish.
And how many problems? At least three big ones.
Kenseth led twice as many laps in Dover, Del., as anyone else and had the race and point lead when his engine expired 26 laps short of the finish.
Kenseth ran among the top five in Kansas City but fell a lap behind because of rain and the sequence of pit stops. On the ensuing restart, he was caught in an multiple-car accident.
Kenseth cruised around at the back of the pack in Talladega, Ala., trying to stay out of trouble. As he made his charge to the front in the final quarter of the race, Bobby Labonte spun ahead of Kenseth, triggering a wreck that involved Kenseth’s car and 10 others.
In the course of three races, Kenseth lost 388 points and dropped to 11th in the standings as Johnson and Gordon skated through the Chase relatively problem free.
“If it don’t rain at Kansas . . . at Talladega, if one of the guys don’t wreck in front of us . . and we don’t blow up at Dover with 25 to go, all of that changes and you’re right back in the thing,” crew chief Robbie Reiser said.
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
Reiser could no more explain Kenseth’s lack of speed last year than his string of misfortune this year.
Kenseth finished 2006 with cars he thought were “awful,” barely capable of running 25th. Yet he contended with Johnson to the end, limping along with fourth-, 11th- and 14th-place finishes aided by quick pit work and other people’s crashes and failures.
The 2003 champion from Cambridge, Wis., fell 56 points short after leading by 31 with four races to go.
Now with two events to go, Kenseth ranks 10th and trails the leader Johnson by 454 points. His best hope is to climb to fifth, but seventh is more realistic.
Statistically, Kenseth’s 2007 will look worse than his ’06. In terms of frustration, though, this one hasn’t been so bad.
“You’ve got to learn to take it all in stride,” Kenseth said. “It’s a big honor for me to be able to be in this car and be able to make the Chase every year and be that competitive.
“If we can keep doing that, then hopefully we’ll be able to win another championship or two throughout our career.”
All he’ll need is better luck. Or better cars. Or better luck.