Remember when Matt Kenseth and Drew Blickensderfer were the stars of the Sprint Cup season? It must seem like an eternity ago to the veteran driver and first-year crew chief of Roush Fenway Racing's No. 17 Ford since they opened 2009 with victories at Daytona and the Auto Club Speedway in California.
Kenseth and Blickensderfer put together their best finish in the last 26 races at Dover on Sunday, taking third on the strength of good restarts and positions gained on pit stops. It was Kenseth's first top-five since the first stop in Dover, when he was fourth, and only the fifth top-five of his season. The last year Kenseth had fewer top-fives was in '01, with four.
Dover was relief from the rough waters, a port in the storm of the first season in which Kenseth didn't made the Chase in its six years. But was it a sign of a return of the team's ability to run with Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon? Probably not, which isn't good news for Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, his Roush Fenway teammates who are in the Chase.
Kenseth doesn't close the door on Biffle or Edwards' chances of winning the championship, but they'd have to find speed that hasn't been there all season. Neither has won a race in '09.
"Just on speed, without any luck or anything changing, you never know," Kenseth said. "There are eight races left. That's a ton of races. That's a lot of points ... to be made. So, anything can happen. But, just on speed, do I think one of our company cars can win? No, I don't. But, anything can happen and they might be able to get that fixed and get that turned around."
Roush Fenway, in fact, hasn't won a race since Kenseth won in California in the second race of the season. Kenseth knows he's being optimistic in thinking the team can suddenly discover a magic formula to challenge the Hendrick cars.
"It wasn't a big surprise to me that we missed the Chase -- I saw it coming for three months," Kenseth explained. "We haven't been performing, the whole company hasn't been performing the way it needs to win a championship, and that's not being negative or anything, it's just obvious. Everybody can see that. So it shouldn't really be a surprise, you know, where they're [Biffle, Edwards] at, considering the results we've had all year.
"You don't just turn it around overnight, so everybody at Roush Fenway is working really hard to get the cars better, to be competitive. We got behind a little and we're working hard to get that back. So, I'd like to say it's a step in the right direction. We had really good pit stops. Our car was reasonable, it wasn't blazing fast, and we were able to get a good finish."
Kenseth started 23rd at Dover. He gained 10 spots through pit stops and 10 on restarts. Kenseth is really good at the Monster Mile. It was the 2003 Cup champion's fourth straight top-five finish. He cracked the top-10 near the halfway point of the 400-lap race, ran in the top-five for the final 122 and climbed as high as second before Martin passed him near the end.
"It ended up being really good," Kenseth said. "We didn't qualify very good, but we were really happy with our car. When the race started, I didn't think we were quite as good as we were [Saturday in practice], but we were able to have really good pit stops. We got most of our position through pit stops and restarts. I kept getting in the proper lane on restarts and my car would run for two laps, and then I'd get two or three spots, and you had to do it right there because there weren't many people that could pass very good. So, we had a nice, solid day on pit road, and the car was OK, also, and I was able to get a decent finish out of it."
Edwards brought it home 11th and is 11th in the points, 153 behind leader Martin. He was stuck between 15th and 20th for a long segment. "And racing my guts out for it, too.
"That's [11th] it. The strategy worked out. That's the best possible finish we could've hoped for with this race car. I'm really proud of my guys on pit road. They did a good job. Bob [crew chief Osborne] made good calls, but our mousetrap just wasn't good enough today. It's frustrating, but not as bad as it could've been, you know?"
Biffle was 13th at Dover and ninth in the points, 138 behind Martin. He arrived optimistic, having finished third in the regular season race and won there in the Chase last year. Biffle complained that the No. 16 team didn't adapt to the new tire specification brought by Goodyear and that Johnson had been its test driver.
"It was a frustrating day," Biffle said. "What's probably most frustrating about the whole thing, and I hate to beat a dead horse, is that the 42 [Juan Pablo Montoya] and the 48 [Johnson] and I don't know who else came up here and tire tested. When we came back, look at the guys that didn't tire test, we ran terrible. It was a completely different tire, it had us off our game right when we unloaded off the truck, we couldn't even make a lap on the track. We got going there toward the end, but not like the guys that tested. That's the whole deal. We had a decent car, but we're not going to beat guys that came here and tested."
That's probably just frustration talking, too. Tires were only one of Biffle's problems at Dover in getting to the front. The others remain a mystery to the team. Kenseth made the most out of his race and got to third. Roush Fenway, with its magnificent resources and talent, will eventually figure out how to run with the Hendrick team again. It doesn't seem likely to happen this season.