Few drivers have welcomed a sixth-place finish like Matt Kenseth did at Darlington. He'd been hemorrhaging points in the three previous Sprint Cup races, plunging to 22nd in the race for the Chase. But Darlington allowed the former champ to post his best run since taking fifth at the California Speedway in Fontana in February.
Kenseth has been in jeopardy of missing the Chase before. He was 24th and 320 points out of 10th with 12 to go in the 2005 regular season and rallied to make it. Kenseth has 15 races left this year and is 153 behind 12th-place David Ragan. He did it once and he can do it again, right?
Maybe. And maybe not.
This has been a transition season for Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing's No. 17, with Chip Bolin replacing Robbie Reiser as crew chief. Their Ford has been hit-and-miss, lacking the high-quality consistency from Kenseth's previous seasons.
Reiser and Kenseth had a deep-rooted history, dating to their days on Wisconsin's late-model circuit. They arrived at Roush Fenway together a decade ago -- first in the Nationwide Series -- and closed out their partnership with a win in the season finale last year at Homestead-Miami. They won the '03 Cup championship, made the Chase in all four of its years and won 15 races together.
Jack Roush promoted Reiser to general manager this season, in part because he was confident that Bolin could step in without missing a beat. Bolin had been an engineer on the No. 17 since 1999 and was interim crew chief when Kenseth won at California in February '07.
But it's also a fundamentally different role for Bolin that goes far beyond sitting on top of the pit box and making calls. Engineers provide information, technical and valuable, but it's up to the crew chief to adapt it to the driver. It doesn't happen overnight.
Chemistry is often cited as the reason for the successful pairing of a driver and crew chief, and it's a product of communication and understanding. Reiser and Kenseth developed it as they rose through the ranks. Bolin and Kenseth are trying to find it at the top level of motor racing.
Eleven races into the season, Kenseth has one top-five. Five top-10s isn't horrible, but it's below the pace of the 43 top 10s Kenseth has had over the past two seasons.
What has Kenseth in trouble is finishing 30th at Martinsville, 38th at Phoenix, 41st at Talladega and 38th at Richmond. They were cases of bad cars compounded by bad luck.
Case-in-point, Kenseth was caught up in the Big One at Richmond because he was running at the back.
"We didn't run very well at all even before the accident," he said. "We were running in the back and everybody was doubled up. We were two- and three-wide back there and everybody was trying to stay on the lead lap and they all wrecked. I got run into from behind and kind of got pushed into it, but that's part of it."
At Talladega, Kenseth blew a right-front tire and hit the wall. Tires weren't a problem for anybody else, which points to either an aberration by the manufacturer, running over a piece of debris or a major setup mistake.
"It amazes me that you can blow a tire at Talladega, but I guess you can, " Kenseth said. "We did everything to Goodyear's specs. We had a tire problem for some reason. We just can't seem to get anything to go our way, so far."
Kenseth's problems in four of the past six races become more stark when juxtaposed to those of three Roush Fenway teammates, who have been thriving. Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Ragan are in the top 12.
Ragan is with crew chief Jimmy Fennig for the second straight year and they've made an impressive improvement over last season, finishing fifth at Darlington and fourth at Talladega. It points to the fact that there's no substitute for time working together for a driver and crew chief.
Kenseth's wasn't exactly overconfident going to Darlington. "We really haven't had much luck with the handling of these cars yet," Kenseth said prior to the start of the weekend. "We've been struggling with getting the car to turn through the corner without getting it too loose on exit. The handling problems we've had on top of our just awful luck has made the past few weeks not a lot of fun for me. So maybe we'll catch a break and at least finish on the lead lap."
Kenseth's drive up from his 34th starting spot to sixth was a welcome relief from the misery. "It was a great finish for us," Kenseth said. "We've been running so terrible and having such bad luck, so I was happy for our finish."
The challenge ahead for Kenseth and Bolin is to put together a string of top fives and top 10s and to start competing for wins. That's what it will take to make the Chase. Is this first-year partnership of driver and crew chief ready to compete at that level? We'll know in 15 more races.