NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2010 NASCAR Driver Review: Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth

2010 Ride: No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
2010 Primary Sponsors: Crown Royal, Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea, Valvoline
2010 Owner: Jack Roush
2010 Crew Chiefs: Drew Blickensderfer (Daytona 500), Todd Parrott (California – Sonoma), Jimmy Fennig (New Hampshire – Homestead)
2010 Stats: 36 starts, 0 wins, 6 top fives, 15 top 10s, 0 poles, fifth in points

High Point: Wrestling the lead away from Denny Hamlin in the final laps of the AAA Texas 500, where Kenseth looked like he was about to break into Victory Lane for the first time since February 2009 in Fontana. Although his Ford fishtailed out of control shortly after taking first place, resulting in a scary moment that could have taken out half the field, this driver, known for his cool demeanor behind the wheel, gathered control and salvaged a second-place finish.

It would mark the first of three straight top 10s to end the season, a boost that brought him from a Chase also-ran to a solid fifth in the final standings. Not only did Kenseth finish on a strong note, but his teammate Carl Edwards closed out the season with two consecutive wins, giving the entire Roush Fenway organization something to look forward to in 2011.

Low Point: Kenseth started the 2010 season on fire with five straight top-10 finishes. He entered the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville second in the points, only one marker behind leader Kevin Harvick. When the race went into “overdrive”, the Wisconsin native restarted in third position, poised to take the points lead and perhaps his first victory in over a year.

As the field entered turn 1, Kenseth saw an opening underneath Jeff Gordon and went for it. The two made contact and Gordon, apparently not liking Kenseth’s move, sent the No. 17 Ford into the wall in turns 3 and 4. The contact left the Crown Royal team limping home to an 18th-place finish and left the driver wondering how things could have turned out if he had simply held on in third.

The loss of momentum eventually took its toll; while the team went on to finish sixth in Phoenix the following weekend, they fell into a swoon shortly thereafter, finishing out of the top 10 in the following four events and killing the momentum gained before that fateful race in Virginia.

Summary: On the surface, a season involving three different crew chiefs and no wins would seem like a disaster by any measure. However, Kenseth and company actually enjoyed a season that wasn’t fantastic but consistent enough to get the 2003 champ back into the Chase after missing it for the first time in the playoff format’s existence in 2009.

The team was shot out of a cannon to start 2010 with finishes of eighth, seventh, fifth, second and fifth in the first five races despite the highly unusual move of switching crew chiefs after the Daytona 500; a move initiated by the driver himself. Then came the previously mentioned post-Martinsville hangover.

Throughout the rest of the season, Kenseth and company did not perform terribly, but they were not great either, recording finishes mostly in the 10th–20th place range. The lackluster results prompted yet another crew chief change, where this time Jack Roush called for the personnel shuffle – citing what appeared to be a breakdown in communication with temperamental Todd Parrott.

The change paired the 2003 championship driver with the 2004 championship crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, and the duo performed just well enough to squeeze into 11th place in the 12-man Chase. The team did not exactly light the world on fire until the final three races of the season, which was enough to propel Kenseth to fifth place in the final drivers’ standings, his best finish since 2007 when he ended the season ranked fourth.

Team Ranking: Third. Kenseth may have finished second out of the three Roush drivers to make the Chase; however, the No. 17 team came up empty in the win column while his teammates Edwards and Greg Biffle recorded two wins apiece. The team made great strides in 2010, but they will have to get back to victory lane and contend for the championship if they want to be in the same league as the Nos. 99 and 16, who are still a level up on their teammates.

Off-Track News: Drivers like to have solid succession plans for when they are ready to retire and it looks like Kenseth has one in the form of his son, Ross. The younger Kenseth took home a win in the Champion Racing Association super late model feature at Winchester Speedway in Winchester, Ind. in May. One month later, the driver added to his success by taking his first ever ASA Midwest tour victory, making Matt one proud papa.

2011 Outlook: The entire Roush Fenway organization should have a lot to look forward to in 2011 following a strong finish to 2010. After going the entire first half of the season without a win, the Ford camp came through with four wins and numerous other strong performances from August to the end of the year. Kenseth should definitely benefit from the team’s improvement. The 38-year old has proved that missing the Chase was an anomaly in his successful career and he should be expected to make the playoff once again in 2011, recording a victory along the way.

However, whether Kenseth will be championship material will depend on one question that has yet to be definitively answered: who will be sitting atop his pit box? Will Roush keep the veteran Fennig as crew chief to try to capitalize on the pair’s late season success? Will Robbie Reiser return to his once familiar spot, as has been the rumor this season? Or will the “Cat in the Hat” turn to a fresh face to help guide Kenseth to his second Sprint Cup championship?

The answer will go a long way in determining whether Kenseth will be a favorite to unseat Jimmie Johnson, or if will be spending a significant portion of his season simply getting used to yet another voice on the radio.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: A-
2008 Grade: B
2009 Grade: C
2010 Grade: B+

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