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New team, outlook have Kenseth optimistic at Sonoma

June 21, 2013, Holly Cain,

Former champ has struggled at road courses in years past, but is determined to change things up

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SONOMA, Calf. -- Matt Kenseth is a two-time Daytona 500 winner, claimed the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and an IROC title the following season competing against the sport's very best.

He’s won 27 Cup races, including three of the first 15 this season -- a feat matched only by points leader Jimmie Johnson. Throughout a stellar career, Kenseth’s proven himself a force on superspeedways, short tracks and plenty of the 1.5-milers that crowd the Cup schedule.

The only thing missing from his impressive resume? A road course trophy.

"I don't know exactly why it is,’’ Kenseth said Friday just before opening practice for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m ET, TNT).

“I've always really enjoyed Watkins Glen.  This track has been a little bit more of a struggle. They're really, really different. Everybody groups road courses together -- it's kind of like grouping ovals together. These two tracks, in my opinion, couldn't be any different.  

"You are always working to get better everywhere."

-- Matt Kenseth

“This one's always been very challenging for me. It's really narrow. It's really slick.  It's just been a bad challenge. We only go to two road courses so they kind of group them all together. I don't know. Just felt like I have been very good at it. So, hopefully I'll be better at it this week."

Then Kenseth added with a straight face and tongue in cheek, “Can’t you see the optimism oozing out of me?”

When NASCAR arrives at the 12-turn, 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway course through scenic Northern California wine country, typically there are a handful of drivers that don’t fare well otherwise, but consider a road course their best shot to win.

Yet for Kenseth, who has won everywhere else, the opposite has been true.

He has only one top-five finish at either the Sonoma course or the historic Watkins Glen, N.Y. course the series visits later in the summer.

For a driver who has had enjoyed so much success elsewhere, his results on the road courses may surprise.

In 13 Cup seasons, Kenseth doesn’t have a single top-five on either road course venue and has led only one lap in the 26 races combined.

He has only a single top-10 -- eighth place in 2008 -- in 13 Sonoma starts and four top-10s in 13 Watkins Glen races -- an eighth place there last year his best effort.

So how can a champion who’s so good everywhere else struggle on one particular brand of racing?

Sonoma’s all-time winningest driver Jeff Gordon says, don’t be so quick to question Kenseth. There are more factors that go into it, he reminded.

“How did the other Roush-Fenway (Racing) cars do in that time?,’’ Gordon asked, referring to Kenseth’s previous 12-year tenure with the Ford team.

To his point, Roush has only four road course victories in the Cup Series and none since 1997. Mark Martin was responsible for them all -- once at Sonoma (1997) and an impressive three-peat at Watkins Glen (1993-95).

“I think a lot of it has to do with your willingness to explore and enjoy the adventure that it is,’’ Gordon said. “Then your team has to back that up with the right car, brakes, setup for you to do what you need to do.

“Matt’s a great driver and I’m sure if the car’s where it needs to be, he’ll be a threat for a win.

The struggles have perplexed Kenseth as well, who says he likes this style of racing just fine. He doesn’t have a single DNF and his average finishes are a respectable 17th at Sonoma and 15th at Watkins Glen.

Like several other drivers, Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing team did test at Virginia International Raceway in preparation for the road course portion of the schedule to “get back into the swing of things.’’

He was 17th fastest in the No. 20 Home Depot/Husky Toyota during opening practice Friday and will be in the fifth of eight groups to qualify Saturday.

“You are always working to get better everywhere,’’ Kenseth said, acknowledging few teams use an official test date at a NASCAR road course.

“It's hard to really work at it besides to study and think about it and look over information and watch races and do things like that with a limited amount of testing.

“We aren't going to burn a test up to come all the way out here. So, when you only get to do it twice a year it's hard to really work at it a whole lot, but certainly I work at it as hard as I can."

All kidding aside, Kenseth said he’s never felt better coming to a road course.

“Our cars have been pretty fast everywhere,’’ Kenseth said. “I'm more optimistic today than I've ever been on a Friday coming to Sonoma. You don't know what the day holds or the rest of the weekend holds, but I feel alright about it."


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