Matt “Yes, I Am A Former Cup Champion!” Kenseth
2006 Ride: No. 17 DeWalt Ford
2006 Owner: Mark Martin/Jack Roush
2006 Crew Chief: Robby Reiser
Stats: Four wins, 15 top fives, 21 top 10s, second in points.
High Point: Kenseth was certainly riding high during the first 26 races of the year, soldiering through the “regular season” in his normal workman-like style to find himself atop the point standings heading into this year’s Chase for the Championship. With the points reset, Kenseth led eventual 2006 Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson by just five points entering New Hampshire, but his spirits were high nonetheless as he had erased a 124-point deficit in August to take over the top spot entering the playoffs.
Low Point: By the seventh race of the 10-race championship-determining format, the 2003 Winston Cup champion had begun to publicly doubt his chances of gaining a second title in NASCAR’s top series. Though Kenseth posted decent finishes throughout the Chase and appeared to be well positioned to win it all, it became apparent to the driver that his inability to post top-10 finishes consistently would not be enough, and he was right. Kenseth’s 10.6 average finishing position during the playoffs wasn’t enough to fend off a late-season charge of five consecutive top-two finishes by Johnson that hurdled him back over Kenseth and into the driver’s seat to capture his first ever Nextel Cup title.
Summary: The 34-year-old Wisconsin native ultimately fell 56 points short in his first serious bid to win the title since 2003. Despite that disappointment, Kenseth continued to establish himself as one of the sport’s best drivers, winning four times, including taking the trophy at the prestigious August night race at Bristol for a second year in a row. His reputation for being a clean, controversy-free racer was slightly tarnished, though, due to high profile on-track altercations that occurred with fellow Chase drivers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. In Gordon’s case, he was able to enact on-track revenge against Kenseth at Chicagoland, spinning out the No. 17 to steal a win after being spun out by Kenseth’s front bumper at Bristol in the spring. As for Stewart, an untimely tap on the backstretch spun out Kenseth and ruined his shot at his first Daytona 500 victory, causing a not-so-nice love tap to occur between the two drivers coming off pit road. However, despite those incidents 2006 still served as a strong season for Kenseth, a confirmation after two Chase failures that the last driver to win the Winston Cup is equally capable of winning a Nextel Cup under the three-year-old Chase points format.
2007 Outlook: With the departure of teammate and now former owner of record of the No. 17 Ford, Mark Martin, Kenseth will become the senior driver in the highly talented Jack Roush stable of wheelmen. With Martin driving part-time next year for Ginn Motorsports, Kenseth and 2006 champion Johnson will be the only two Cup drivers battling for the title that have qualified for the Nextel Cup Chase every year since its inception in 2004.
The 2000 Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year should be positioned to keep that streak intact for 2007. Fellow Wisconsin native Robbie Reiser, the only crew chief that Kenseth has teamed with in his Cup career, is expected to return, and Roush Racing should continue to provide Kenseth with top-notch equipment. After coming so close to the title this year, Kenseth, as well as his whole Dewalt No. 17 team, will be committed to tweaking their performance to guard against the mediocrity that haunted them at the worst possible time in 2006… the last five races.