News & Media

Kenseth, Fennig find strength in similarities

September 17, 2011, Joe Menzer,

JOLIET, Ill. -- Wisconsonites right where they like to be: in the mix, but out of the headlines

It was a match made, well, not really in heaven, but more like Wisconsin.

Actually the latest pairing of driver Matt Kenseth and Jimmy Fennig was placed into motion in the Roush Fenway Racing office of competition director Robbie Reiser in June of last year. Fennig, a native of Milwaukee, had been serving as manager of the Research and Development program at RFR. Kenseth -- a native of Cambridge, Wis., born 62 miles away and nearly two decades behind Fennig -- wanted him to be his new crew chief, but he wasn't sure if Fennig would take the job.

"If you can fly under the radar, people don't see what you're doing -- and the next thing they know, they kind of get hit over the head and they're like, 'Where did they come from?' But there's nothing they can do about it then."


Noting that Fennig had served as crew chief in recent seasons for drivers Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan, only to eventually be replaced each time, Kenseth had serious doubts about it. He knew Fennig was a proud man -- and rightly so after sitting on the pit box as crew chief for 27 races and one championship, in 2004 with Kurt Busch, during a career that already had included winning the 1988 Daytona 500 with Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison and a highly successful five-year run with Martin.

"I think after that, I hate to say it's a blow to the ego -- but it's sort of like you've been shoved to the back room," Kenseth said of Fennig going from crew chief to R&D manager. "When you've been there as long as he's been there and won that many races and a championship, I think that had to be tough. I think that was behind some of his hesitation to come back out, because he didn't want to go through that again."

In reality, Fennig said that there was virtually no hesitation at all on his part once he found out the plan was to put him back on the pit box of Kenseth's No. 17 Ford. The two had paired together for 21 races in what is now the Nationwide Series in 2006, capturing four poles, three wins, 15 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes.

"If I was coming back racing, that's a person I knew I could work with," Fennig said. "If it was a different driver, I probably would have had to think about it a little bit longer. If it was anybody else, I probably would have stayed back in R&D. When I found out it was Matt, it was something that was interesting to me right away.

"No one had to talk me into it. We just had a meeting in Robbie's office and they asked me if I'd do it. I agreed right there. Within five minutes, everything was done."

Fennig said he loves working with Kenseth because they are so much alike, and he doesn't mean simply because they're both from Wisconsin.

"One thing I enjoy about Matt is he's a racer. He worked on his own cars, built his own race cars and he knows his race cars inside and out," Fennig said. "He doesn't just get in 'em and drive 'em. That's what I respect most about Matt.

"It's a privilege to work with Matt Kenseth. It's a privilege to work with a driver of that caliber. I've been enjoying it."

The reunion of driver and crew chief has paid obvious dividends, and has them set up to possibly surprise some folks in the 10-race Chase that commences this Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Kenseth enters the Chase as the No. 4 seed, just six points behind Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick at the front of the Chase pack and only three behind No. 3 seed Jeff Gordon.

Kenseth's two wins this season came earlier at Texas and Dover -- two tracks at which he'll get to run again during the Chase. And in starting the Chase off at Chicagoland, Kenseth is running at a 1.5-mile track where he's finished second twice and completed a remarkable 2,671 of a possible 2,673 laps in 10 starts.

"I really like the race track, and I think it's neat that we're kicking this off in Chicago. I think it's a cool thing for the city and the race track," Kenseth said.

"It's a really cool track. You can run side by side. Only running here once a year, you might get something you don't expect -- like last year when [race winner David] Reutimann just hauled the mail and run away with it and some others you might have expected to be a factor because it's a 1.5-mile track weren't. So I think it could be a little bit of a wild card. I think we'll have to see who adapts to it the quickest."

With Fennig in his corner -- and on his pit box -- Kenseth said he is confident his team could be one of those that does.

"Jimmy's been around a long time and not only has a lot of experience, but has a lot of experience winning and of being in competitive situations with different drivers," Kenseth said. "He's been a lifer, pretty much, at Roush Fenway Racing -- so he's a real loyal guy, a real hard worker. He's one of those guys where it doesn't matter what the schedule is, he just doesn't burn out, which is so important these days.

"It's amazing for a guy his age and for how long he's been doing it, but he just can't wait to get to the track and get to work every week. He wishes we could test more. He's all about racing, and that's all he's about. He's a great guy to be leading our group and I'm happy to have him."

Fennig celebrated his 58th birthday just last Thursday. He is no stranger to the Chase, having won the first one with Kurt Busch in 2004 -- the year after Kenseth won the last non-Chase Cup championship in 2003.

"It's good to be back in the Chase. That's what you work all year for -- to get into the Chase and make a run at the championship," Fennig said. "Like I've said, it was fun winning the championship with Kurt. But with Matt, I'm looking forward to having another shot at it.

"This is just a little less stress. Kurt's Kurt, you know? He was awesome during that whole stretch and we really didn't have that many problems. It's all what you put on yourself. That's how it works out."

In other words, Fennig, who parses out his words carefully, appears to have found a comfort zone with Kenseth that sometimes was elusive with the more volatile Busch. Kenseth said it's funny sometimes when they're talking about the car over the radio, though, because both he and Fennig have sort of a Wisconsin approach to life in which they always feel things could be better.

For example, there have been several races this season when Kenseth has complained that the car is "absolute junk," yet they've massaged a strong finish out of it.

"In that aspect, we're kind of the same," Kenseth said of he and Fennig. "I don't know if it's a good quality or not, but we're always trying to work on the car to get it better. Unless you're winning every week -- and even if you are -- you just have to keep getting better each week because the competition is so tough.

"Jimmy's a perfectionist. He wants the cars to be perfect. He wants the pit stops to be perfect. He wants the strategy, the restarts ... he wants the whole thing. It's never good enough, and to me that's a good quality to have."

When they were paired together in June of last year, even they weren't certain at first how long it would last. But now Kenseth said he hopes Fennig sticks around as his crew chief for a long, long time.

"I was on my third one in six months, so I didn't know what to expect," Kenseth said. "He doesn't really say very much, but I think right now he's probably having a pretty good time -- a better time than he's had in a while. He's pretty comfortable in this spot right now, so I would be shocked if he doesn't keep doing it for a while more. I know he loves being at the race track."

Kenseth was the fastest of the 12 Chase drivers in Friday's final practice and backed it up with Saturday's strong, pole-winning qualifying run. If he keeps this up, it will soon become much more difficult for the No. 17 team to continue its preferred method of flying under the radar while fellow competitors gobble up most of the headlines.

"I wish we were running a little bit better right now," Kenseth said. "But yet if you throw [a 23rd-place finish at] Richmond out, the three weeks before that we ran pretty good. We didn't finish the races off as good as we should, but we qualified in the top five or six every week -- which is unusual for us. We ran up in the top five almost the whole time in those races, too. We just didn't keep up with our adjustments like we needed to on pit road and keeping up with the track and all that stuff.

"I feel like we have a team and equipment and an organization that's capable of winning a championship if we do everything right."

Fennig said he believes so, too. But he admitted he would like to do it as quietly as possible.

"That's kind of our deal anyway," Fennig said. "We don't draw much attention to ourselves. I like just racing. I don't like doing [media interviews]. If you can fly under the radar, people don't see what you're doing -- and the next thing they know, they kind of get hit over the head and they're like, 'Where did they come from?' But there's nothing they can do about it then."