Kenseth is barely hanging on to Chase spot

Throughout his NASCAR Cup career, Matt Kenseth has been the king of consistency.

With competitive equipment, Kenseth will deliver.

And despite the nickname “Matt the Brat” earned during his early days in racing, the media and fans have seldom — if ever — seen that side of Kenseth. The 37-year-old Cambridge, Wisc., native avoids the limelight. Kenseth prefers that performance be his statement. Certainly, Kenseth did just that when he won the Cup championship in 2003.

After scoring just one win that season at Las Vegas and a steady average finish of 10.2, Kenseth’s accomplishments didn’t provide enough flash for NASCAR. The sanctioning body went back to the drawing board to devise a new program to decide the Cup title. In 2004, the Chase for the Championship was born.

Kenseth easily qualified for that first Chase class — and has made the field ever since. Although he admits that “every year has been a little bit different”, the basic strategy is obvious.

“The first thing you need is fast race cars,” Kenseth said. “Then a good race team and then preparation with pit stops and the like. We’ve always handled that pretty well but this year we haven’t been as competitive.

“We’ve been more consistent here lately, but we used to be more consistent — finish in the top 10, get top fives quite a bit. This year we’ve been consistent around 12th to 15th if we have a good day, sometimes worse than that.”

Kenseth started the season with back-to-back wins at Daytona and California. He then took a major hit during the third race of the year at Las Vegas when his engine failed six laps into the race. Since then, Kenseth has worked at regaining the momentum he had early in the year before dropping to 12th place in the standings after Martinsville Speedway on March 29. He’s averaged a 10th-place position in the points in the last 19 races but now finds himself 12th in the standings with just a 20-point advantage over Brian Vickers.

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“When we show up our cars aren’t fast enough,” Kenseth said. “I don’t think it’s from a lack of the right personnel or right people on the teams or the right pit stops. It’s just a little bit of everything. I think we’re to the point where they really need to examine everything — company-wise — and make sure we’re doing all the right things to make our program stronger. It seems like we’ve been treading water for about six months.

“Maybe things will be better at Richmond. We have worked and tried to get some new short-track cars built. Everybody I think is going to have new short-track cars at Richmond — a different version of what we’ve run at short tracks to make it better. It seems on the intermediate track we’ve gone backwards for six months. We need to get that figured out.”

Kenseth has found himself in a similar predicament before. In 2005 when there were only 10 drivers eligible for the Chase, he was ninth in points entering Richmond with a 10-point lead over Jamie McMurray and an 11-point advantage over 11th-place Ryan Newman. Kenseth finished second at Richmond and remained ninth entering the Chase.

The following year, Kenseth led the points entering Richmond. In 2007, he was safely in fifth place after the 24th race. However, last year was precarious as well as the No. 17 Ford was ninth in the standings before Richmond and 109 points inside the Chase Zone. Despite a collision with teammate David Ragan on lap 122 and a 39th-place finish, Kenseth qualified for his fifth appearance in the postseason.

To be a lock, Kenseth must finish second and lead a lap. In 19 starts, Kenseth has one win, three top-fives and nine top 10 finishes.

Since the Chase debuted, only Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have qualified for every Chase. Will Kesneth’s streak continue after Saturday night?

“It’s not going to be easy to get in,” Kenseth said. “What you have to do is easy — beat Kyle and Brian. If you can finish in front of those two cars, you’re going to be in and if we don’t we probably won’t be.

“Hopefully, our stuff will be competitive and we’re just going to go out and race the field like we always do. Hopefully, we’ll be competitive, we’ll be able to get a good run and it will be good enough.”