NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2007 NASCAR Driver Review: Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth

2007 Ride: No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
2007 Primary Sponsor: DeWalt Tools
2007 Owners: Jack Roush, John Henry
2007 Crew Chiefs: Chip Bolin (Feb. Daytona – March Atlanta following the suspension of Robbie Reiser during Daytona Speedweeks), Robbie Reiser
2007 Stats: 36 starts, 2 wins, 13 top fives, 22 top 10s, fourth in points

High Point: Anytime a driver gets a win on the Nextel/Sprint Cup Series, it is considered a large achievement, one that many drivers can only dream about. A victory is extra special for Kenseth, who is known more for his rock-solid consistent finishes rather than the dominating double-digit win seasons main rivals Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have put up through the years. So, his two victories at the Auto Club 500 in Fontana and the season finale Ford 400 in Homestead will surely stand out from the rest of the 2003 champ’s accomplishments – especially when one considers who was atop the pit box during those feats.

It was an ominous start for the No. 17 team, as regular crew chief Robbie Reiser – the only one Kenseth has known since 1997 – was suspended for unapproved changes to the body following Daytona 500 qualifying. The team was then forced to dig themselves out of a hole, as Kenseth was relegated to a 27th-place finish during the season-opening event due to a last lap crash.

But dig they did. “Second-string” crew chief and longtime Roush Fenway engineer Chip Bolin led the Carhartt/DeWalt Ford Fusion to a dominating victory the very next week in California, setting off a string of seven straight top-15 finishes for the No. 17 team.

Following another competitive season that placed Kenseth in the Chase for the fourth consecutive year, the 2000 Rookie of the Year finished his tenure with Resier in style. Two days after Reiser’s announcement he was taking a new position with Roush Fenway management, the duo decimated the field at Homestead, leading 214 laps en route to Kenseth’s 16th career victory – one which extended the Roush Fenway winning streak at the track to four.

Finally, one cannot talk about high points for this Wisconsin native in 2007 without mentioning the resurgent Brett Favre and Kenseth’s beloved Green Bay Packers, who captured the NFC North title this December.

Low Point: Kenseth and company tried to begin the Chase by being, well, “non-Kenseth” like. Usually known for just “hanging around” until the end, Kenseth uncharacteristically kept his Roush Fenway Fusion up front for most of the day during the Chase’s second event at Dover. But instead of drinking the sweet taste of champagne, the DeWalt team finished the day in the garage after a late-race engine problem left them with a disappointing 35th-place finish.

It was the same exact result the very next week at Kansas, after a wreck ended the No. 17’s day early; this, despite a front-row qualifying effort. A subpar finish at Talladega and yet another wreck in Charlotte left Kenseth mired in 12th spot with virtually no chance at winning the championship at the Chase’s halfway point.

Adding insult to injury, following the Bank of America 500, the team reeled off five straight top-five finishes, leaving the “Killer Bees” wondering what might have been if they only started the Chase as strong as they finished.

Summary: A season like the one Kenseth had in 2007 would be considered a monumental success for most teams in the Nextel Cup garage area; and for the No. 17 team, in many ways it was. However, the stretch of four races in the Chase noted above will haunt them this offseason. If not for that stint of awful luck, this team surely would have had the best chance to challenge the Hendrick stronghold in the 2007 Nextel Cup Championship competition.

However, becoming now just one of two drivers (Johnson) to make the Chase in each year since its inception, overcoming early-season adversity and racking up enviable stats make for a season that the entire DeWalt team can be proud of.

2008 Outlook: Judging by the trend over the past few years, it is almost a guarantee that Kenseth will enjoy another outstanding year and claim a fifth straight Chase berth in 2008, almost. Remember that the difference this year is that longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser will not be calling this shots, with that honor now going to Chip Bolin. But while the team may need some adjustment time to come up to speed, don’t expect the transition period to take long.

First, Reiser’s influence will still remain in some capacity, as he will now oversee the entire Roush Fenway organization. Second, with one win already under his belt, Bolin has already demonstrated that he can make the right calls to help Kenseth find victory lane. Finally, and most importantly, championship drivers know how to adapt to changes successfully; all that adds up to this 35-year-old veteran hardly missing a beat next season.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: A-

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