What a difference a year makes.
Last year in the Hollywood Hills, Matt Kenseth flew in as the trendy pick for NASCAR's movie-in-the-making: "Jimmie Johnson's Biggest Threat." Starting 2009 with a gift from Mother Nature, the duo of Kenseth and new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer won a rain-shortened Daytona 500 and followed with a Week 2 masterpiece at Fontana. By the end February, "Blick," was NASCAR's hot new mechanic, with Kenseth looking like every bit the title contender to match wits with the No. 48.
But as we know in sports and entertainment, there are a million short-term success stories and only about 100 that ever hold up.
Fast-forward to 2010, and the E! Hollywood Story now centers solely on Kenseth's messy divorce from Blickensderfer and his pairing this week with new crew chief Todd Parrott.
That two-week honeymoon with Blick was the highlight of a marriage filled with cracks. The duo had just five top 5s and 11 top 10 finishes in their last 35 races while leading just 154 laps -- easily the worst stretch of Kenseth's career since 2001. Looking back, the knockout punch came at Richmond last September, with Kenseth's 25th-place finish leaving him out of the playoffs for the first time since the Chase began in 2004 -- a system designed in part because of his dominance in capturing the Cup title the year before.
Now, one of NASCAR's most successful drivers finds himself with his third crew chief in a little over two years. It's been a shocking downhill slide for Ford's once-marquee attraction, a stage Kenseth now shares with Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and new addition Kasey Kahne. Where has it all gone wrong?
Most trace the answer to the departure of Robbie Reiser, Kenseth's longtime head wrench from 2000 to '07, who stepped off the road to spend more time with his family (he's currently the Roush GM). But the bigger change may have been the departure of longtime veteran Mark Martin from Roush at the end of 2006. The move left the team without a veteran leader within the five-car operation, leaving Kenseth -- who finished runnerup in the standings that year -- the natural choice to take the helm.
He never has.
While others have embraced that role (Jeff Burton at RCR and Martin at Hendrick come to mind), Kenseth doesn't exactly have the charismatic personality that brings everyone together within an organization. Instead, if anything he's been stuck in neutral, developing an off-again, on-again feud with Edwards (currently off -- the two were laughing and joking in the driver's meeting last Sunday at Daytona) combined with a troubling inability to put on a happy face in times of trouble.
Kenseth's deadpan sarcasm can be hilarious at times, but when he's slumping it comes with a nitpicky criticism that has him earning the nickname Eeyore -- the morose donkey from Winnie The Pooh. Left unchecked, it's the type of pessimism that can drain the confidence from a team, even when things are going well.
Take last weekend, for example.
"I was happy with the result, I wasn't very happy with our weekend overall," he said. "We started the day way, way off and it was just a battle the whole time. We got lucky."
Based on those comments, you'd think Kenseth finished 30th instead of 8th. But that's the way he's always been, keeping the team from finding the inspiration to turn things around.
The good news is that Parrott appears to be a perfect fit. The third-winningest active crew chief on the circuit (29 victories), his first gig was with a winning driver who'd also been having his share of confidence problems: Dale Jarrett. But in their first five years together, they scored two wins apiece at Indy and Daytona to go along with their lone Cup Series title together in 1999.
A hard-nosed, fierce competitor, Parrott's not going to put up with those kind of publicly demoralizing quotes. As an old school guy with old school tactics, he's the type who will immediately whip Kenseth into shape. The bigger problem will be whether the technology has passed him by. A longtime member of Robert Yates Racing through good times and bad, he has just one victory as a crew chief since the start of 2003 as he stayed on that sinking ship far too long.
Some will question Parrott's hire after just one race, wondering why Roush didn't make this type of change after last season. But sometimes, you're better off giving someone a shock when they least expect it than seeing how they perform under the circumstances.
That's exactly what he's done with the "leader" of his team, putting in a fiery Parrott to shake his driver out of the doldrums. Now, we'll see if Kenseth has the willingness to change along with it, rewriting his own Hollywood ending -- or beginning a slow, dark fade into the category of "C" list stars.
-- For someone who's not a fan of bump drafting, Jeff Gordon got involved in more than his fair share of incidents at Daytona. Hendrick as a whole struggled during Speedweeks, as the straight-line speed from their four Chevrolets just didn't hold up in the draft, but Gordon didn't help matters by totaling two cars in just under two weeks of racing. While Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin should register quick recoveries this weekend, it's a shaky Gordon who bears watching over the next couple of weeks -- especially if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. backs up his second-place finish at Daytona when he reaches Fontana. At no time in history have all four Hendrick cars hit on all cylinders, so someone has to be the odd man out.
-- Tired of all the Danica Patrick coverage? Well, guess what? It's not going away anytime soon. Saturday's Nationwide debut for IndyCar's first female set a record as the series' most-watched race ever on cable. 4.2 million people viewed her 35th-place finish at Daytona; so if she finishes in the top 10 at California, expect those numbers to go through the roof. (For the record, I think she'll be around 15th).
-- Looking for a driver whose restrictor plate muscle might translate into the 2010 season as a whole? Try putting your money on Greg Biffle this weekend in California. The Biff was third at Daytona, pushing friend Jamie McMurray to victory while leading more laps there than in the past seven years combined at the track. If the No. 16 team is that good with plates on, expect them to run up front at Fontana -- his Roush-Fenway team has won the last five February races on the 2-mile, cookie cutter oval.