Kenseth still trying to get back to Victory Lane
Matt Kenseth rolled into Las Vegas a year ago looking to become the first driver to open a season with three consecutive victories.
He returns to Sin City this week still trying to get back to Victory Lane.
There have certainly been some strange turns for Kenseth since his spectacular start last season.
An engine failure six laps into the Las Vegas race last March left in him in last place and began a downward trend that saw Kenseth miss the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the first time.
Then after only one race this year, an eighth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team had an unexpected change of crew chiefs.
"I don't think there was a sense that we didn't think we couldn't win," Kenseth said. "It's just kind of a hard one to explain."
In many ways.
After a winless 2008 with crew chief Chip Bolin, Kenseth began last February with new chief Drew Blickensderfer and became the first driver in 12 years to open a season with consecutive victories. Then came the blown engine and the beginning of some inexplicable struggles.
Kenseth followed the 2-0 start with an average finish of 17th over the next 24 races. He placed no higher than fourth and finished in the back half of the field seven times, as many times as he was in the top 10.
Yet going into the last event before the 10-race Chase he was still in contention to join Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers to make the Chase for the championship all six years since it began in 2004. But he finished 25th at Richmond and dropped from 12th in the points standings, the last spot in the Chase, to 14th.
Kenseth had three top-three finishes at the end of last year and there were no major changes during the offseason, so it was a bit of a surprise last week when team owner Jack Roush and Kenseth replaced the crew chief known as "Blick" with Todd Parrott just one race in 2010.
"Unfortunately we've found that as a team they haven't excelled," Roush said in California last week when trying to explain the sudden switch. "Matt Kenseth is as good a driver as anybody in this business has ever been or will be, and it's my failing that I haven't put him in a situation yet where he can demonstrate that to all."
Parrott, who won a Cup championship as Dale Jarrett's crew chief in 1999, went from heading the Roush Fenway team's superspeedway program to the top of Kenseth's pit box.
Even with his new crew chief's limited prep time, Kenseth was the best of the four Roush drivers in Southern California. He started 20th and, after some adjustments to an ill-handling car, finished seventh at the two-mile superspeedway where the team had won the previous five Februarys.
"Matt and the pit crew did a great job last weekend at Fontana and fortunately this week I have a little more time to prepare," Parrott said.
Before the engine failure at Las Vegas a year ago, Kenseth had two victories and three top-10 finishes in nine races at the 1½-mile track. And his 438 laps led there are the most by any driver.
"I'm eager to get a chance to race at Las Vegas," Kenseth said. "Last year we only ran six laps. ... So we weren't able to see how good our car was. "
Blickensderfer was a rookie Sprint Cup crew chief when he replaced Bolin last year, but had been in Roush's Nationwide Series program. He won three races with Kenseth in the second-tier series before being paired with Carl Edwards and winning seven of their last 19 Nationwide races.
Roush considered going back to Robbie Reiser, the general manager overseeing his four-car team, before deciding on the fiery old-school Parrott to boost Kenseth's car.
Reiser was Kenseth's crew chief before Bolin and was on the pit box during Kenseth's dominating 2003 championship season, when the driver took over first place in the standings in the fourth race and stayed there the rest of the year.
"He was considered as we looked at putting this thing back together and making sure that we didn't waste races as we get ready for a championship run for the 17 team," Roush said. "But with Robbie, there's been a resurgence and he's certainly put Roush Fenway on a level that we've never been on in regard to our quality, our consistency, our manufacturing prowess and all those other things."
Parrott has a drastically different personality than Blickensderfer, who basically traded jobs with Parrott and is now doing research and development for the team.
Kenseth said Parrott's voice "kind of thunders through the room" and that he sees the new crew chief as someone who can be the needed motivator — like the Super Bowl-winning New Orleans Saints have quarterback Drew Brees and the Baltimore Ravens' dominating defense has linebacker Ray Lewis.
"You just didn't feel it there. You didn't feel like everybody came in the truck fired up to go win races," Kenseth said of last season. "It's probably not the case, but you almost felt like they'd come in and they were just kind of going through the motions. It was like we need some spark into the group somehow and get everybody back to what this is about."
His first race with Parrott was a good start.