News & Media

Kenseth's skid wasn't only one snapped at Texas

April 11, 2011, David Caraviello,

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Fennig returns to Victory Lane after roundabout journey back to pit box with RFR

Perhaps befitting the temperament of a program run by a pair of cool upper Midwesterners, there were no real hysterics or exultations when the more than two-year-old winless streak of the No. 17 team finally came to an end. "Going to the checkered," the spotter told Matt Kenseth nonchalantly. The driver thanked his crew. Crew chief Jimmy Fennig congratulated his driver. And then everyone packed up and started for Victory Lane, as if they had just been there the week before.

But not before many members of Kenseth's over-the-wall crew, one by one, stood up on the concrete pit wall to offer a handshake or a high five to the man on top of the war wagon. Kenseth snapped a 76-race skid with his victory Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway. But for Fennig, the drought had been much longer. Owner Jack Roush's longest-serving crew chief, who had held a few behind-the-scenes jobs until pairing with Kenseth in the middle of last year, tasted victory at the Sprint Cup level for the first time since 2005.

"Whatever Jack wants me to do, that's what I'll do. But I'm really enjoying working with Matt, and hopefully we win some more races."


"I'm glad I'm back here and I'm glad I'm with Matt Kenseth driving the race car, because it makes my job easy," Fennig said. "But whatever Jack wants me to do, that's what I'll do. But I'm really enjoying working with Matt, and hopefully we win some more races."

For Kenseth, Texas certainly represented a breakthrough. The 2003 series champion hadn't won on NASCAR's premier level since his back-to-back victories at Daytona and Fontana, Calif., to open the 2009 season. Kenseth plays as active a role in the makeup of his race team as anyone, and the ensuing struggles saw the Wisconsin native go through crew chiefs like tires. Drew Blickensderfer gave way to Todd Parrott who in June of 2010 gave way to Fennig, a mainstay at Roush since 1997 who had been working with the organization's research and development program.

Fennig had been an integral part of some of Roush's most successful seasons, winning 14 races in five years with Mark Martin, and then 14 more and the 2004 championship in a quartet of seasons with Kurt Busch. After that he endured some lean years with Jamie McMurray and David Ragan, and was overseeing the R&D department when Kenseth turned to a fellow Badger State native to help turn his program around. They were far from strangers -- Kenseth arrived at Roush around the same time Fennig did, and frequently tagged along when Martin's powerhouse No. 6 team went testing.

"That first year, it was '97 and '98, when the testing rules were different," Kenseth said. "That was when Mark used to let me come hang out at the tests. I'd stay at the hotel with guys, and hang out with Jimmy a lot and ask him a lot of questions, kind of like that pesky little kid he was getting tired of answering questions for. But I would hang out, I would try to learn as much as I could and spend as much time as I could at the test, so I've known Jimmy and respected Jimmy for what he's done for a lot of reasons for a long time."

The combination worked, to the point that there were plenty of signs even late last season that the No. 17 team was ready to break the drought. That happened at Texas, when Fennig snapped a streak that made his driver's look modest by comparison. Saturday marked the veteran crew chief's first victory since he and Busch won at Richmond in late 2005, on the night Roush claimed five of the then-10 berths in the Chase. In between, Fennig may not always have been visible -- he did some work for Roush's Nationwide program in addition to his efforts with the research and development team -- but among those on the inside, his contributions were always valuable.

"Jimmy is a racer's racer. An in-the-blood, down to the bone, racer," said Bob Osborne, crew chief for Carl Edwards. "I'm honored that my first team engineer position was under Jimmy with the 6 car. I learned a lot about racing, setting up race cars and calling races, by being able to sit down with him on a daily basis. He's a fabulous crew chief. He's by far one of the best crew chiefs in the garage area, leaps and bounds better than I am, I think. He is one of those guys that's good at everything he does within this racing organization. He excelled as the R&D leader, and he's excelling again as a crew chief."

Roush joked Saturday night that Fennig was "an instant success story" -- after all, he and Kenseth won in just their 26th race together. The car owner knows better. Fennig has done just about everything there is to do at Roush, working with five different drivers in several different capacities. If anything, you get the impression that Fennig was somewhat happy in his R&D position, and had to be prodded to step back into the spotlight.

"Jimmy is a consummate stock car racer. He can run your R&D team. He can take your rookie driver. Heck, he even won a championship with Kurt Busch. He can do anything. That was the biggest job I've ever seen done in terms of a driver crew chief managing a program to get the most out of it," Roush said, taking a jab at his temperamental ex-driver.

"Jimmy is one of the guys I look to to give me advice behind and around and above the engineers on what's right and what's wrong about our deal. Nobody did a better job running our R&D program than Jimmy. And when we went through a number of crew chiefs trying to find a combination that would be best for Matt through kind of the dark days when it seemed like we couldn't get it right, Jimmy was well burrowed into the R&D thing. He was having a good time. He was taking his race team without fans and without TV and without the sanctioning body. He was going out and running his program to find out how to make his race car fast. You don't have the freedoms at the race track that you have in R&D when you can organize your tests and all your components. But Jimmy stepped back up and jumped in front, and he's done a better job than I think anybody could today with Matt."

The results are evident. Kenseth ended 2010 with a strong finishing kick, scoring top-10s in five of his final eight starts, and dominated Saturday night at Texas by leading nine times for 169 laps. Nobody could catch him. He enjoyed leads of seven and eight seconds during certain parts of the race, and weathered a few threats by drivers trying to stretch fuel mileage -- including one such gambit by Busch, his old teammate and Fennig's former charge -- to win convincingly.

"I've felt better the last six months. Everything's been looking up," Kenseth said. "Certainly the previous 12 months before that were frustrating for me, and as you start to get a little older, and you're not getting the results, and it's been over two years since we've won -- you can't help but thinking, 'OK, is this the way it's going to go? Are we going to keep trickling backward?' You just keep working as hard as you can at it, and try to get the cars as best you can, and then hopefully you'll have some more chances to win. But it certainly gives you more confidence, and it's a big relief to get back to Victory Lane and break that winless streak. It's been a long time."

It had been a long time, for Kenseth as well as Fennig. Saturday night, for both men, those long waits at last came to an end.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.