Hendrick cars may be grabbing all the wins, but Matt Kenseth is on their tail and the Roush team is trying to make a move
TEN RACES into the 2007 Nextel Cup season, the most overlooked driver in NASCAR sits comfortably in third place in the points standings, yet he still leads the series in a category that he has absolutely owned since his first full season of Cup racing in 2001: pessimism. "We still have a long way to go as a team to catch up with the likes of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson," says Matt Kenseth, naming the two drivers ahead of him in the standings. "And I'm also concerned about our performance falling off, because that's happened to us in the past.... But other than that, things are going good."
Kenseth, a native of Cambridge, Wis., who's known for his Midwestern reserve and glass-half-empty mien, sighed as he stood in his hauler and recounted his season to date, but in truth he is off to one of the best starts of his career. After taking 10th on Sunday in the Crown Royal Presents the Jim Stewart 400 at Richmond—won by Johnson—Kenseth, 35, has one win and an average finish of 8.7, which is better than his average in 2003 (10.3), when he won the title. But Kenseth, who drives a Ford for Roush-Fenway Racing, has been overshadowed this season by the Chevys of Hendrick Motorsports, which have combined to win seven of the last eight races.
That dominance hasn't dampened the outlook of Jack Roush, co-owner of Roush-Fenway. "I've still got great hopes of getting four of my guys into the Chase," says Roush, who after the Richmond race had only two of his five drivers among the top 12 in points (the cutoff for NASCAR's postseason field). "Not only that, but I look forward to Matt winning it all this year. We're going to peak at the right time."
The relatively slow start by perennial powerhouse Roush—in addition to Kenseth, the team's drivers stand 11th (Carl Edwards), 13th (Jamie McMurray), 15th (Greg Biffle) and 25th (David Regan) in points—underscores just how fine is the line that separates a winner from an also-ran at NASCAR's top level. But Roush has invested heavily in getting his team back up to speed. He just spent $5 million on a seven-post shaker rig, a high-tech, hydraulically powered simulator that allows cars to be tested under race conditions without actually running on a racetrack. Now Roush believes that his Fords will catch the Hendrick gang by August and pass them in October—in the thick of the Chase.
The moves have not gone unnoticed by rivals. "The Roush organization is going to bounce back, I promise you," says Tony Stewart, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. "They have too much talent and resources."
Chief among which is Kenseth—though he'd never admit that himself.
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.
1 For the first time since Oct. 2, 1994, Dale Jarrett (right) failed to qualify for a Cup race, snapping a consecutive-starts streak of 424 when he didn't make the grid in Richmond. The 50-year-old Jarrett has become increasingly frustrated with the poor performance of his number 44 Toyota. (Crew chief Matt Borland quit last week.) Within two years the 1999 Cup champion is likely to be in the TV booth full time for ESPN, following in the footsteps of his father, Ned.
2 In Cup racing, sophomore slumps are as common as loose lug nuts. But reigning Rookie of the Year Denny Hamlin is bucking the trend. On Sunday he finished third at Richmond and moved up to fourth in the standings. Two factors in the 26-year-old Hamlin's success: His Joe Gibbs Racing team is running a close second to Hendrick Motorsports in the Car of Tomorrow (CoT) races, and he has quickly developed chemistry with his crew chief, Mike Ford.
3 The driver who has made the most improvement in the CoT over the last month is Kurt Busch. After finishing 29th, 12th and 18th in the first three CoT races, Busch came in fifth on Sunday. Now ninth in the standings, Busch is the only Dodge driver in the top 12—though his Penske Racing South teammate, Ryan Newman, has climbed to 19th on the strength of two straight top-10 finishes.