Friday, February 27, 2009

Can Kenseth Set NASCAR History Sunday In Las Vegas?

By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange

LAS VEGAS -- It's hard to put Matt Kenseth and the word "excitement" in the same sentence.

While Sprint Cup racing has more than its share of colorful characters, ranging from Kyle Busch to Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Tony Stewart to newcomer Scott Speed, Kenseth is the exact opposite.

He's as vanilla as they come. He doesn't toot his own horn, rarely grabs headlines for dirty racing and answers questions from the media with little pizzazz.

Heck, Kenseth flies so far under the radar that he might as well be called "Mr. Stealth," as opposed to a guy like former Cup driver Jimmy Spencer, whose nickname is "Mr. Excitement."

While he tries not to bother anyone, Kenseth's lack of overt personality has brought about its share of criticism -- even though Kenseth is comfortable in his own skin as a laid-back kind of guy.

The way he sees it, if anyone has a problem with his personality, it's their problem, not his.

So, after winning the first two races of the 2009 Cup season and being on the verge of becoming the first driver in NASCAR history to win the first three races to start a season, Kenseth won't deviate from the norm.

While others are talking up the potential of Kenseth winning three in a row, he enters Sunday's Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with a ho-hum viewpoint about what he's done thus far in '09.

"I haven't really thought a whole bunch about it, to be honest with you," Kenseth said Friday at LVMS. "I didn't think we would have won the first two races, so I haven't really thought about the third. We're just going to take it one race at a time like we always do and just be business as usual."

Come on, Matt, couldn't you be a bit more excited? After all, you didn't even win one race all of last season. What do you have to say about that, Matt?

"Hopefully we can get our car to handle good this weekend and have a shot," Kenseth said. "The pit crew has been operating at an extremely high level, and so have all the guys getting the cars to handle and run -- the engine guys and everything. So, I feel like we have the tools to be competitive and we'll just try to be as competitive as we can and hopefully be somewhere in position at the end."

Excuse me for one second ... yaaaaawwwwwwwnnnnnnnnn.

OK, much better.

Finally, Kenseth gave us some meat to chew on, giving acknowledgement to the significance of the task at hand.

"It would be huge, obviously, to win this week," Kenseth said. "But every race is difficult to win. It took us a whole year to win a race, so everything has got to line up just right.

"We're not going to approach this any different than any other week or really even think about that. If it happened, that would be pretty wild. That would be pretty crazy and something I've never really thought about, but we're just going to concentrate on going out business as usual and trying to perform."

That Kenseth has come out of virtually nowhere to dominate the road to victory lane in the first two races speaks volumes about how much his team has improved over last year.

"In a way, it doesn't seem really seem real that we won the first two races," Kenseth said.

The main source of that improvement has been new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. Until Kenseth fails to win a race, Blickensderfer has the best winning percentage of any crew chief out there, including veteran stars like Chad Knaus and Greg Zipadelli.

Blickensderfer is 2-0 as a Sprint Cup crew chief because he made outstanding calls in the first two races that put Kenseth into victory lane and also made some shifts that have strengthened the overall performance of the "killer bees" (the nickname of Kenseth's pit crew).

"He's made a big difference," Kenseth said of Blickensderfer. "To bring Drew in as crew chief with his leadership abilities and experience, and to be able to work side-by-side with Chip (former crew chief Chip Bolin returned to his old position of chief engineer for the No. 17 team) to help each other make us perform has been a big deal.

"I really think he's going to be the guy for a long time. I think he's kind of the young version of Robbie (Kenseth's longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser, who was promoted to general manager for parent company Roush Fenway Racing after 2007) when he got in to lead the team, so I think it's pretty cool that he's fit in that well. He fits in with all the guys really well and he's been doing a great job so far, obviously."

Blickensderfer is enjoying his time in the spotlight, especially playing up the fact that he remains the only unbeaten crew chief in NASCAR. But deep down inside, his reserved personality and laid-back ethic mirror that of his driver almost to a "T."

"It's kind of hard to explain, but bringing Drew in, as soon as I saw him after a week with how he and Chip got along and how he got along with the guys, even after he just started at the shop and we were preparing our cars you could tell that the morale was boosted already and it just had a better feeling," Kenseth said. "It just felt like there was more energy there and there was more enthusiasm there. Everybody was happier when they were at work and it just felt good. It just felt like that was the right move ... the spark that was going to help us be more competitive and help us work better."

Winning the first two races has Kenseth doing something he rarely does: looking ahead. He's already talking about using his first two wins as a springboard to not only qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but also winning his second career Cup championship (his first was in 2003).

"It's never too early to think about points," Kenseth said. "You're trying to get points all year long to get in there. ... We've got a lot of racing to do before we get in (the Chase), but if we can stay competitive and run as good as we did last week, if we keep running competitively in the top 10 and stuff, then I'll feel better about that or think about it a little bit more."

Excuse me while I fall over in shock. NASCAR's Mr. Vanilla just might have some flavor in him after all.

1 comment:

What do you think? Leave Your Comment Here:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.