2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 17 Crown Royal Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Owners: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Jimmy Fennig
Years with current team: 12
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 1st (2003)
Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.
Born: March 10, 1972
In an era when flashy, over-the-top personalities garner the most attention in the headlines, one driver, Matt Kenseth, remains successful with his trademark quiet consistency. Stuck in the middle of the longest winless streak of his career (70 races), the 38-year-old was still able to post a rebound year in 2010, finishing fifth in the final series standings after missing the Chase in ’09. With an upswing like that, you’d think that all Kenseth needs to do is to fine-tune a couple areas and he’ll be fighting for titles again. But until the No. 17 team enjoys stability at crew chief, the 2011 season — and this driver’s career, for that matter — remains a giant question mark going forward.
Kenseth enjoyed a long, successful relationship with head wrench Robbie Reiser, who led the team to the 2003 championship, but since his promotion in 2007 to Roush Fenway general manager, there has been a revolving door atop the pit box of the No. 17. Reiser and Kenseth combined for 15 wins in their last six seasons together, while a ragtag replacement group of Chip Bolen, Drew Blickensderfer, Todd Parrott and current leader Jimmy Fennig have combined for just two since February 2008. The last of those was supposed to be a temporary solution; Fennig was lured out of “on the road” retirement in the team’s R&D department to fill a role seemingly destined to land back in the hands of someone else.
“That’s not fair to say,” said Kenseth when asked point blank if he wouldn’t be happy until Reiser was back leading the team. “Robbie had a chance to come back and do it, but the problem is Robbie wants to do everything, so he didn’t want to leave his post at the front office. There’s a lot more going on and a lot more important things in Roush Fenway Racing than just one team.”
That quote cryptically sounds more like, “I wanted the guy to do it, but everyone’s just being stubborn right now.” The current consensus on the rumor mill is that Kenseth would kill for Reiser to return, but to do that he’d need to convince one important man in particular — owner Jack Roush. But Roush has emphasized that the RFR organization was not making major changes to any of its programs prior to Daytona after his Fords enjoyed a strong 2010 finish across the board.
While Mr. Consistency keeps consistently lobbying behind the scenes, there are other positives to build on heading into the season. Sponsorship from Crown Royal remains solid, as does the rest of the men going over the wall. Kenseth’s “Killer B’s” pit crew, long known to be some of the best in the business, won NASCAR’s Pit Road Season Championship last year. Staying out of trouble is a growing strength, as the veteran finished all 36 races last season for the first time since the schedule expanded in 2001.
The knock on Kenseth is that he’s typically a bad qualifier. His 19.4-average start means improvement on Fridays is a must, as trouble while driving through the pack is a constant danger for anyone. Combine that with a plate race flameout of zero top-5 finishes since he won the 2009 Daytona 500.
But his style is still unquestionable. Often he’s a non-factor during most of the race only to pull a David Pearson and leave you asking, “Where did he come from?” when the checkered flag falls. Add in the Ford FR9 engine full-time in 2011, and he should be able to build on the three straight top-10 finishes he ended last season with. And a victory or two is not out of the question after a long drought.
The question here is, with Reiser not calling the race-day shots, how long will Kenseth stay happy? Like the guy who’s too picky because he can’t get over the “perfect” ex-girlfriend, Kenseth seems to spend his time looking for the other shoe to drop. Until he can jell with a crew chief for more than a year, or few months, Kenseth will remain unable to secure the second title that eludes him.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
The last champion before the Chase has qualified for all but one of them (2009). “Kenseth is right there with (teammates) Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards,” says a crew chief. “The difference is that Kenseth didn’t get as fast as the other two. He’s like he always is; he makes the best of what he has. Why does he have a little less? I can’t answer that.”
Another says, “His performance got better late in the year, just like Edwards and Biffle. Maybe his curve was just a little later developing. I think, in terms of 2011, he’s in as good a shape as anyone.”
Adds a third rival crew chief, “Kenseth is probably the best in the sport at making the best of what he’s got. Johnson and Harvick are the only other drivers who are even close.”
Looking at Checkers: Auto Club and Michigan. How very Roush of him.
Pretty Solid Pick: Not too shabby at Dover, either, with 10 top 5s in 24 starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: Kenseth is not nearly as bad at Charlotte as he’d have you believe.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Has scored a top 5 on every track on the circuit except for the two roadies. Avoid accordingly.
Insider Tip: Don’t expect a high win count here, but he’ll be his usual consistent self.
Top 5s: 6
Top 10s: 15
Laps Led: 108
Laps Completed: 10,770
Lead Lap Finishes: 32
Bonus Points: 65
Races Led: 13
Average Start: 19.4
Average Finish: 12.8
After First 26 Races: 9th
Final Points Standing: 5th
Driver Rating: 86.0 (14th)