Only two men in NASCAR history can claim admission to all five Chase for the Championships: Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. But while Johnson has cruised to two straight titles under the new format, Kenseth has struggled to show the playoff consistency that won him the 2003 Winston Cup trophy in a landslide.
It was Kenseth’s dominant performance under that old points system that caused NASCAR to come up their current 10-race playoff. But while the formatting change hasn’t been rewarding to the 2000 Rookie of the Year, Kenseth remains one of the sport’s most visible, outspoken drivers with a sarcastic streak that can’t be beat. And while his ’08 Chase hasn’t gone as expected – three wrecks in five races left him out of contention – he didn’t let the bad luck affect his mood during an interview with our own Doug Turnbull. Among the hot button topics discussed in an easygoing conversation: his pending free agency, David Ragan‘s success, and what will happen to Roush’s fifth car.
Doug Turnbull, Frontstretch: You’ve had a tough deal in this Chase. It’s been a tough stretch these last five or six races. How do you view the races coming up? You probably don’t see yourselves in contention anymore. Are you looking ahead to 2009, or are you putting it all on the table to try and win?
Matt Kenseth: We really try to put it all on the table and win every week. We are pretty much out of the championship hunt, obviously, but so are most of the cars out there. There’s 38 cars out of the championship hunt. So, we’ll go out there and race hard and try to get momentum toward the end of the year. We’ll get as high as we can in the point standings, and try to get positive momentum going for next year.
Turnbull: Do you have a candidate for who you think is going to win the title? Does Greg [Biffle] have enough to catch the No. 48 [Jimmie Johnson]?
Kenseth: Well, I hope so. I mean, Greg hasn’t won a championship yet. He’s a really good friend and a teammate, so I hope he does. I think the favorite has to be the No. 48, because he is the two-time defending champion and they always seem to get it done at the end of the year. The No. 31 (Jeff Burton) is really smart and consistent; if his cars run fast enough, he might be able to do it. I think Greg’s cars will run fast and maybe run as good as Jimmie’s at most tracks, and he has a good shot if Jimmie has any kind of trouble. I think the No. 31 doesn’t make any mistakes at all. I think if his cars run fast enough, he may have a good shot, too.
Turnbull: Some people, especially purists in the sport, have been critical of the Chase because it can wipe a huge points lead out. They [NASCAR] brought on the Chase after you won your first championship in 2003. Do you think the Chase is a good thing? Would you rather see it another way, the same way, or what?
Kenseth: I think you can find good and bad in anything that you look at. I think that the Chase, in a way, was becoming a little bit of a necessity. I think that with football starting at the end of the year, the end of our season, kids going back to school, all the different stuff that goes on in the fall – I think the Chase was something that kind of spruced everything up a little bit. It kind of made everybody pay more attention. Our season is just so incredibly long – from February to the end of November – so by the time September rolls around, people are looking for something a little bit different. You could have someone 400, 500, or 600 points ahead, and people are still going to watch races for the competition – but there might not have been much of a points race. So this way, it kind of resets everything and gets everyone real interested again.
Turnbull: After next season… I remember when Silly Season was really hot, someone mentioned that Matt Kenseth is a free agent at the end of next year and people just love to take rumors and fly with them. I just want to see what your take is on your free agency coming up. Roush has to downsize teams. What is DeWalt’s commitment? Are you going to look at other teams?
Kenseth: I don’t really have any plans to. I honestly haven’t really thought about it that much. It’s more than a year out and once the year’s over, I’m sure we’ll probably look at it and think about it a little bit. I don’t have any plans of doing anything really different. I’ve been fortunate to be with the same group of guys and the same team for 10 years now. They’ve always given me really good racecars and have always been behind me. I think everybody’s goal as a racecar driver is to win races and have stuff that is capable of winning and capable of winning championships. I feel like we have that here now; I think we have everything we need to do that.
Turnbull: Speaking of the same group of guys, you had Robbie Reiser as your guy [crew chief] for years, but he moved up into the Director of Competition role this season and you’re with Chip Bolin instead. How’s that relationship forming? Do you see even better things for 2009?
Kenseth: I hope so – every year you hope to improve from the last one, no matter how you did. Chip and I, he was our original engineer on the No. 17 team. I’ve been working with him for 10 years, so there wasn’t anything to really learn about him. It hasn’t been that big of an adjustment for me; but I think it has been an adjustment for him. He used to just worry about the car going fast and that’s it, now he has to think about people and schedules – all kinds of different things he didn’t have to worry about before. I think that’s taken some getting used to. He’s never been great at delegating; he likes to do everything himself, and I think it has taken him a while to realize you can’t do it all yourself, you need some help. We’ve got some good people to help us out, and I think things have been going pretty good.
Turnbull: Max Jones was the guy that Robbie Reiser replaced. He went over to Yates Racing; they are kind of an umbrella team for Roush Fenway, and you all share the engine and chassis departments. How does that setup work, and how do you think the teams have benefited – or do you think your [Roush Fenway] teams have even benefited at all from that setup?
Kenseth: The goal was to have everybody help each other and make it that much stronger. I probably shouldn’t say it, but I don’t think, at this point – this being in the first year – that [the Yates] teams have benefited the Roush teams yet. We give them everything we have and vice versa – they share information. There’s a few things they’ve helped with. Yates has always been really, really good with superspeedway stuff and they’ve helped us on our superspeedway program.
The [long-term] goal is to have all the teams running good, and to have them all sharing information and trying to learn something from everybody.
Turnbull: Roush is going to have to drop one team after next season. Do you all have any inkling of how that is going to work? Will one team end up under the auspices of Yates or what?
Kenseth: First of all, nobody’s told me. From what I think, if I have to guess, the goal for Jack [Roush], since they [NASCAR] made the rule to go down to four teams, is to have eight teams under the Roush umbrella. So, I wouldn’t be surprised, with Paul Menard coming over next year and that being the third team for Yates, that after ’09 with one of the five teams having to be shut down or moved, I would assume that it would get moved to Yates. If I had to guess, the way everything is kind of being set, it looks like that is kind of the direction. I don’t know if that’s what’s going to happen… but that would be my guess.
Turnbull: NASCAR announced this week that they are not going to make any changes on the Car of Tomorrow for 2009. Is that a good move on their part, and if it’s not, what changes would you suggest they make to get a more racy car? What has been the biggest issue with most drivers?
Kenseth: I don’t know. When you build something like that, there’s going to be some good things, some bad things, and some struggles. In a way, it has been good they haven’t changed anything this far into it. Yeah, we would like it to drive a certain way, maybe a little bit better. With this car, the tire has been real important, for whatever reason. At Dover, they (Goodyear) gave us a little softer right-side tire that was a little racier and that made the racing way way better. I think this car has so much less downforce than the old car and handles so much worse in the corners and the corner speeds are so much slower, we need to be on a softer tire that has more grip and that drops off as we run. That would make the racing better. I don’t think the racing is bad now, but I think that would make it better if they could figure out how to make a softer tire.
Turnbull: Goodyear’s had several races this year where there have been problems. What do you think Goodyear should do about these issues, and do you think they are doing the right things now?
Kenseth: I think they are constantly working on it. I think they make a great product. They have been in business for a long time. They’ve done stuff for the highway, aircraft, all kinds of things for years with lots of success. This new car kind of threw them for a loop. I think they were too conservative with tires on this car, because they don’t want to blow tires all the time and be hitting the wall. I think they were on the conservative side, especially at Atlanta. But I think they are getting a handle on it; I think they are figuring it out. I was just in Indy for three days testing with them and we seemed to get a lot better on making some tires last and still handle decent. They’re gonna get it; there’s just going to be some growing pains with that car. They’re trying to build a tire for a totally different car, with a totally different downforce, center of gravity, heights, all kinds of stuff. It just takes a little while to get it right.
Turnbull: The new car is being tested in the Nationwide Series, granted not the same Car of Tomorrow, but a Car of Tomorrow-type vehicle. Have you had an opportunity to test that, and have you gotten any feedback from Ragan and others who have tested it?
Kenseth: I haven’t tested it yet. From what I have heard, from Carl [Edwards] and David and a couple of other guys, they seem to like it. They said it drove pretty good. The splitter is a lot higher on that car, which is what everybody kind of wanted on our Cup car and it doesn’t have bump stops, so they’ve been able to travel them a little bit farther. They said that helped them drive tremendously better. That’s kind of what we were looking for originally on the CoT was to have the splitter a little higher, a little taller, four inches or something like that so the suspension wouldn’t have to be crushed as hard and it might turn a little bit better. That is one of the things that has been so hard to work around.
Turnbull: Speaking of the Nationwide Series, that’s a series that a lot of fans have looked at with a bad taste in their mouth. Some people don’t like Cup drivers double-dipping, and they don’t like the start and park teams and some of the underfunding and sponsorship allocation. Should NASCAR do something to fix the series? If so, what can they do?
Kenseth: You just hit on two things. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You say they don’t like the Cup guys that come and race, and you say that you don’t like the start and parks. If the Cup guys don’t come and race, then there’s only 10 or so fully-funded teams right now that run and you’re gonna have a whole bunch of start and parks because they can’t afford to race. They can’t afford to buy tires. They’ll start the race and get the $10,000 start money and make a couple thousand dollars in a weekend. You can’t have both, you know. If the Cup drivers don’t come over there and race, you’re not going to have a full field. It all depends on what you want to see. The sponsors in the last few years have gone with the Cup drivers, and that’s the only way the owners can afford to race and not lose a ton of money is to have a sponsor that will pay more to have a Cup driver in there to run that team competitively. That’s been the problem. It’s become expensive, just like the all the rest of the racing we do. It’s not like back in the day when I ran in the Nationwide Series. You could run it on not a ton of money and you could get a sponsor for [cheap], because the companies weren’t spending that much and they would take a chance on somebody. It just seems it is hard to do that now.
Turnbull: When I asked you about Ragan last year, the results were mixed because there were lots of crashes and mediocre results. But he had a breakout year this year. What do you see as his development now and in the future?
Kenseth: I think David’s done really well. He’s overdue for a win, especially in the Nationwide Series, and in the Cup Series he’s been really good. He’s got a lot going on. He’s got good equipment at Roush and he’s got one of the best crew chiefs there’s ever been with Jimmy Fennig working on his stuff. It doesn’t matter how good you can drive; if your car’s not fast, you’re not going to the front. I think you can see him grow up in his driving style and get smarter and make better decisions and finish races and he’s done a really good job of that this year. I think he’s really come a long ways.
Turnbull: Even though he’s wrecked you a couple of times, right?
Kenseth: (laughs) Well, we did have that accident at Daytona that would have been nice for us both not to have. He probably would have been in the Chase, too, if we wouldn’t have had it. That would have been nice for that not to happen.
Turnbull: Did you see the pictures of your teammate Carl and [Kevin] Harvick scuffling in the garage?
Kenseth: Oh yeah! I enjoy seeing stuff like that all the time, as long as I’m not in the pictures.
Turnbull: What do you think this does for the sport?
Kenseth: I don’t know. I think any kind of conflict always creates some excitement in the media. Obviously, it means a lot, because people want to see it, read it, look at it, and all that. I think it makes it exciting. I think it was unfortunate timing to happen to Carl because I think it probably doesn’t help his chances much. But I think it was interesting to see.
Turnbull: How do you and Carl get along?
Kenseth: We get along alright.
Turnbull: Do you feel like you still owe him something from Martinsville?
Kenseth: Nah. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t really keep track of stuff like that. I mean, I’m sure in his opinion, I’ve done more wrong to him than he’s done to me. Everybody has different opinions, so I don’t really worry about it. Everything’s been fine. That was a whole year ago, so everything’s been good – everything’s been cool.
Turnbull: Do you like the idea of what they are doing with testing next season, where you get to test at more tracks, or is it better this season where you go to five or six places?
Kenseth: I like it how it used to be. We used to get seven tests per team. We could go wherever we wanted and test. Seven days, besides Daytona, that was plenty. We are supposed to get [next year] 24 days or something like that and all four teams can test. That’s gonna make you test at every track. It’s gonna be a huge load, in my opinion. It’s a huge expense for the owners. I don’t know how we’re gonna get time to do everything if we’re gonna test 24 days, plus Daytona three days, that’s almost a month of testing. And one day of testing… you could spend one day in Sears Point and one day in New Hampshire, you know what I mean? You can go anywhere you want. I think it’s gonna be pretty huge. I think it’s gonna be a lot.
Turnbull: Roush was one of the first teams to do a fusion of primary sponsors to fund a team, such as Biffle’s No. 16 car. With the economy the way it is, are DeWalt and your other sponsors committed to still funding your team, or are you going to have more of a package deal with the sponsors?
Kenseth: DeWalt has always owned the whole car [the entire sponsorship space] and they’ve sold space to sponsors. They’ve got partners, like R+L Carriers, Carhartt, USG Sheetrock, Rinnai Water Heaters – all people that’ve been in their industry, that they have done business with, to sell off some of the sponsorship, to make it more affordable. And they have partnerships with other people in their industry.
Turnbull: What’s your take on the diversity controversy in NASCAR, since issues such as the Mauricia Grant lawsuit have come up this season. It probably does not affect you directly, but have you seen actions similar to some of the accusations and allegations in the suit? Does that really ever come up around you?
Kenseth: I don’t really pay much attention to that. It doesn’t really affect me that much. I don’t really have an opinion on it. I don’t know what went down; I don’t really know a lot about what came up.
Turnbull: At least partially due to the economy, we’ve seen ticket sales slump a little bit, sponsors go. We’ve seen purists complain about how the racing action is. What is the state of NASCAR? Is it still a vibrant, growing sport?
Kenseth: I think that you have up years and down years. Everything, obviously the economy, fuel prices, energy prices all make a difference. I think it’s good and competitive; it’s the most competitive form of racing there is. It all depends what your expectations are. If your expectations are to have a three-wide fight for the lead and have a photo finish every week, that’s not gonna happen. Being a purist, you talk about that, I used to watch ESPN Classic a lot and watched a lot of the old races and I used to see one or three or five cars on the lead lap. So, if racing is so much better back then… I watched a race from Daytona right after I heard someone saying how bad one of the races was because someone won by a second and a half. I watched it and it was Daytona, everybody drafts, and the leader was ahead by a straight away. That’s a plate race, you know what I mean? It’s like, if you’re not four-wide across the finish line, it’s a bad race. I think expectations have become probably a little unrealistic. I think NASCAR has done a lot of things to make sure it stays competitive: giving away free laps to keep more people on the lead lap and keep more people in contention. They’ve done a lot to try and keep things competitive with this car, and now there’s more cars closer to the same speed now than there’s ever been.