Kenseth's hunch about 'Blick' paying off

3/1/2009 - NASCAR

LAS VEGAS -- Matt Kenseth wants everyone to know that he alone is responsible for Drew Blickensderfer becoming the crew chief for the No. 17 Ford.

"This was my deal," Kenseth said.

Don't get the wrong idea. Kenseth isn't bragging, although who could blame him after back-to-back victories to start 2009 and a chance to make history Sunday in the Shelby 427?

Kenseth would tell you the same thing if he had finished 40th in the first two races.

The point is this: Good or bad, the man making the decisions for Kenseth's team is Kenseth. Jack Roush owns Kenseth's team, but Kenseth has taken control of his path.

After a winless 2008 season, Kenseth knew his path needed to change. It wasn't working, so Kenseth made a decision to do something about it.

Kenseth had a private meeting with Chip Bolin, the man who replaced Robbie Reiser as crew chief this past year when Reiser moved up to his GM role at Roush Fenway Racing.

Bolin had been Reiser's right-hand man on the 17 crew, working as the team's engineer since Kenseth's rookie year in 2000. Bolin was the obvious choice to move up, but things didn't jell.

Bolin is like the brilliant offensive coordinator who knows every intricate detail of his sport, but isn't comfortable as the head coach.

"We were lacking that guy last year," Kenseth said. "We all knew it. Chip knew it. I knew it."

So Kenseth talked to Bolin one-on-one about making a change.

"I talked to Chip before I talked to anybody else," Kenseth said. "He was trying to be the engineer and the crew chief and it was just way too much.

"Chip needed more time to work on the cars, sort through data and work on setups. We worked it out together and decided we should do something different to get him where he could focus on the cars."

The next step was to pick the man who could give the team what it was lacking. Kenseth didn't hesitate.

Blickensderfer, an emotional 32-year-old Illinois native, had the spark Kenseth was seeking. Kenseth immediately noticed a fire and passion in Blickensderfer when he drove for him in several Nationwide races.

"I liked him right away," Kenseth said. "I could see that leadership ability in him. I knew Drew was the next guy to move up in our company, but I didn't think it would be for us."

Kenseth said "Blick" reminded him of a young Reiser. Blickensderfer likes that comparison.

"I've tried to mold myself on how Robbie does things,'' Blickensderfer said. "For three years, I've kind of hung around him, looked at the way he looked at people and the way he did things.

"I always went and talked to Robbie when I had questions with the Nationwide team. And sometimes he would pull me aside at the shop and talk to me about different things."

But Blick had another leadership model long before he met Reiser. Blick's father, Jack, is a high school basketball coach in Decatur, Ill.

The younger Blickensderfer played basketball, but went to Indiana University on a wrestling scholarship. So competitive athletics and coaching always have been part of Blick's life.

I wanted somebody young and somebody who hadn't been a Cup crew chief. I didn't want someone who had been there, done that. I wanted someone I knew would work harder and be more loyal because they were getting this opportunity.

-- Matt Kenseth

"I've been blessed to have my father and a lot of other great coaches in my life," Blickensderfer said. "They taught me when to cross the line, when not to cross the line and how to deal with people."

Blick and the 17 team are on the verge of doing something that never has been done. They can help Kenseth become the first Cup driver to win the opening three races of a season if he goes to Victory Lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

No doubt Blick will have the 17 crew fired up and ready to go. His leadership style is working to perfection so far.

"I think I treat my guys the way coaches treated me in the past," Blickensderfer said. "There's a time to kick somebody in the butt and there's a time to put an arm around them.

"Each personality is different. There's certain people that can relate if you get in their face and yell at them like a football coach, and there's certain people you need to put your arm around, take them next to the trailer and say, it's OK."

Kenseth said he's overjoyed at how the crew has responded to Blickensderfer.

"As soon as he started, it was obvious we had a new feeling," Kenseth said. "Drew got along so well with Chip and all the guys. He brought energy and enthusiasm that everybody fed off. Everybody was happier. It just felt good."

Kenseth is not an outwardly emotional guy, but he was smart enough to know his team needed an emotional boost and a renewed passion. He saw those qualities in Blickensderfer, and Blick also met two other Kenseth requirements.

"I wanted somebody young and somebody who hadn't been a Cup crew chief,'' Kenseth said. "I didn't want someone who had been there, done that. I wanted someone I knew would work harder and be more loyal because they were getting this opportunity.''

After Kenseth talked to Blick about taking the job, he went to Reiser and told him this was what he wanted to do. Reiser and Kenseth then went to Roush to tell him about Kenseth's plan to move Blick to crew chief.

Roush now says Blick has brought magic to the 17 team. Kenseth doesn't know if magic is the right word, but whatever it is, it's working. And Kenseth made it happen.

"This was the first time I ever got involved in these types of decisions," Kenseth said. "It was my deal. I think Drew's going to be the guy here for a long time. He's made a big difference."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.