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Menzer: Strong, silent approach works for Kenseth, Fennig

October 17, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com



Menzer: Strong, silent approach works for Kenseth, Fennig
CONCORD, N.C. -- Kenseth, Fennig have inconspicuously worked way into Chase conversation

Matt Kenseth has always been a silent killer on the race track.

He's solid, steady, doesn't attract much attention. Fellow competitors frequently forget his presence in the same race as them -- until the laps wind down. Then suddenly he's there, running up front and challenging for a top-five finish or, at least this season, even the victory in his inconspicuous No. 17 Ford.

"It seems like those Wisconsin guys are awfully quiet most of the time. You know, maybe that's just a part of it. They will squeak it out there at the end, and leave you in the dust."

--KYLE BUSCH

He appears to have gotten even less conspicuous since teaming up last year with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig, a fellow Wisconsin native who chooses to say little but do lots.

"You can never count him out," driver Kyle Busch said of Kenseth. "It seems like those Wisconsin guys are awfully quiet most of the time. You know, maybe that's just a part of it. They will squeak it out there at the end, and leave you in the dust."

That's precisely what Kenseth did Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, winning the Bank of America 500 after Busch had led a race-high 111 laps and Greg Biffle, one of Kenseth's teammates at Roush Fenway Racing, had led 68 in the 334-lap event on the 1.5-mile track.

For Kenseth, the last champion of the pre-Chase era when he won the title in 2003, it served notice to the rest of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup field that he's a legitimate contender with five races remaining in this season.

Although he remained the current Chase points leader by finishing third on Saturday, Carl Edwards pointed out that of all the Roush Fenway cars that ran strong on the night, only Kenseth has a championship trophy on his shelf at home. He also noted that Kenseth now sits a mere seven points behind him heading into this Sunday's race at Talladega.

"He's the only one of us who's got a championship," Edwards said. "He's doing really well, and [on Saturday night], that car was really fast and he drove it really well. I spent a lot of time behind him. He was wheeling it. So I don't think you can count him out at all."

True believer

Count car owner Jack Roush among those not surprised that the Kenseth-Fennig tandem is squarely in this championship hunt after Saturday's victory, Kenseth's third this season. It's the most Kenseth has had in a season since registering four in 2006, and three times as many as he posted during his last championship run in 2003 -- when he had only one win, but outlasted everyone else in the old points system with good ol' consistency, putting up 25 top-10 finishes and 11 top-fives.

"Jimmy is a championship-quality crew chief. He won with Kurt Busch a few years ago and Matt won with [then-crew chief] Robbie [Reiser], of course, and Robbie is our general manager now," Roush said. "But we've got a lot of depth in the organization."

Roush sang a cautionary tune when it came to the demise of five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who was running well in seventh position when he tangled with Ryan Newman and hit the outside wall hard, nose-first, to end his night with just 18 laps remaining. It left Johnson with a 34th-place finish, 35 points out of the Chase lead and in eighth place when he had entered the night in third and a mere four points back.

"All of the Ford cars ran well [Saturday night]," Roush said. "It was just a matter of time until Matt broke loose from his obscurity in the back and middle of the pack and worked his way to the front [after a four-tire stop ordered by Fennig midway through the race]. But what happened to Jimmie Johnson is a sobering lesson for everybody.

"You can't afford to break apart. You can't afford to put a wheel wrong. A loose lug nut on pit road with an extra pass at the wrong time to serve a penalty could be a championship-losing event. There is just a lot that these guys have to do that has to really be done correctly. Jimmy and Matt got it done [Saturday] and I'm sure they're going to be a factor in this championship going down the stretch."

One difference, championship look

There is one notable difference in Kenseth's game these days. A notoriously poor qualifier virtually his entire 11-year Cup career, suddenly he's qualifying up front much more frequently in an era when doing so matters more than ever. He qualified second for the Charlotte race, and that was the third time in five Chase races that he's qualified fourth or better -- including winning the pole in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

It enabled him to run up front virtually the entire night on Saturday, except for the brief stretch aforementioned by Roush -- when Fennig insisted on getting fresher tires and was proved correct in his belief that, in the long run, it would help Kenseth get back up front and stay there.

"It makes a big difference," Kenseth said of qualifying better. "It's a lot different than it was five or six years ago. I used to probably not stress out quite as much about qualifying because if you started 25th and had one of the best cars, it wasn't a problem to pass 24 cars in four hours.

"But everybody is a lot closer to the same speed now, which obviously makes it a little bit more difficult to pass and track position is really important, so qualifying always helps. It helps you with your pit stall, it helps you with your track position. Hopefully you can get out and get a bonus point and lead a little bit, so it's always important."

Fennig added: "Qualifying is real important now. For one thing, if you don't qualify good you're stuck back in the pack and you've got all that dirty air. For us, it makes your adjustments a little bit harder racing against the dirty air and figuring out what to do, so it's really important to qualify good."

Roush said the entire package has him excited about the chances of Kenseth or Edwards to give his organization its first Cup championship since Kenseth and Kurt Busch gave him back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004, marking both the end and the beginning of the Chase era.

"We're in championship form," Roush said. "In my 24 years I've never had better cars for the championship stretch than we've got and we're anxious to see how it's going to work out. ... I just think that the hard work everybody has done is paying off and we're getting what we deserve."

Kenseth said he knows the perception is that he's not the most colorful guy or the most popular, or even noticeably recognizable for long stretches of many of the races he runs. He said he doesn't care about any of that.

"It doesn't really matter to me that much what everybody thinks, that we're in it or out of it or whatever," he said. "What's important to me is trying to win races and trying to be competitive and go do the best job we can do every week.

"I don't really care about Wii dance-offs or how much coverage you get for doing certain things. If somebody wants to say I'm boring or whatever, I was hired to try to go win races and try to run good and that's what I try to do every week. I take my job real serious when I'm at the race track. Jimmy and I and all the guys work as hard as we can on the common goal of trying to be the best and trying to win and trying to run for a championship -- and that's who we are at the race track."

It is showing now perhaps more than ever.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch: Kenseth's Charlotte celebration