DOVER, Del. — For 2003 (then Winston) Cup champion Matt Kenseth, things could be better, but things also could be worse.
Kenseth drives a Ford, and Ford is the only manufacturer without a victory in the Sprint Cup season’s first 12 races. Befitting a former champion, Kenseth is holding up well through what otherwise might be termed a slump. In fact, Kenseth was and is third: third in the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway, and third in the overall point standings.
"There have been races this year where we performed well enough to win," said Kenseth. "We finished second in Atlanta, and we were second or third on that last restart at Martinsville (18th-place finish after tangling with Jeff Gordon). In Vegas, I think Jeff (Gordon) and Jimmie (Johnson) had better cars, but we ran second or third there (fifth-place finish) all day."
The Wisconsin native just turned 38. In 376 Cup starts, Kenseth has won 18 races, and his next top-five finish will be his 100th. In NASCAR’s all-time list of winners, Kenseth is in a five-way tie for 37th place with Geoff Bodine, the late Neil Bonnett, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Harry Gant.
The careers of Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. have been intertwined. Earnhardt outdueled Kenseth for two (then) Busch Series championships but has never won a Cup championship. Both have won the Daytona 500. They were both rookies in 2000, with Kenseth winning Raybestos Rookie of the Year.
Both also have had a hard time winning lately. Forty-six races have passed since Kenseth opened the 2009 season with consecutive victories.
"To me, it’s important to win, but more than that, if this makes sense, it’s important to put yourself in position to win and be up leading laps," said Kenseth. "If you look at Jeff Gordon’s year, he hasn’t won yet, but he has led, like, 800 laps (actually 709), and has been in position every week. It is just a matter of time until he wins.
"You always want to win every week, but more so for me, it’s important to have the performance of the car and the team, everybody involved, to be a contender to win. If we are up there leading laps and in contention, eventually we’ll win. It’s important for me to get our performance up to a championship level."
Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (N.C.) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week (http://nascar.rbma.com) features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at firstname.lastname@example.org.