No time to panic for defending champ


JOLIET, Ill. -- If these were the old days, Matt Kenseth would be getting nervous.

He has dropped to fifth in the standings, 356 points behind
leader Jimmie Johnson, after tough finishes in four of his last
five races. He hasn't won since March and has one top-five finish
in the last six races.

But these aren't the old days. NASCAR retooled its championship
to try to put more emphasis on winning and end having winners wrap
up the title long before the season ends -- as Kenseth did last
year. Now the field is reset with 10 races to go, and all drivers
in the top 10 can make a run at the sport's biggest prize.

"That is the good thing that with this new system you can make
mistakes -- but not a lot -- and have problems and have things break
early in the year, and can still run for the championship,''
Kenseth said. "That's definitely a lot different than it ever has
been before.

"(But) we need to be more solid in the top 10 so in case we do
have more problems we don't drop out of it.''

Kenseth was a model of consistency when he won the final Winston
Cup championship last year. He won only once, but he finished in
the top 10 in all but seven of the first 27 races. He led the
standings for most of the season and built such a big lead no one
could catch him.

But his luck hasn't been nearly so good this year. He won two of
the first three races, putting him in first place in the point
standings. But he dropped from third to fifth after engine failure
at the Talladega Superspeedway in April.

He was third at the Coca-Cola 600 on May 30, but hasn't been in
the top five since. An accident knocked him out at Dover, and early
crashes at Sonoma and Daytona left him too far back to make a run.

"We've made some mistakes and I've done some dumb things on the
track,'' Kenseth said. "We've had things happen where we've made
mistakes that usually a championship team can't do. And yet, if we
stay in the position we're in right now, with 10 races to go, we
can still have a good shot at the championship.''

And he's not quite sure how he feels about that.

"For an example, Jimmie Johnson ... has bad luck in the last 10
races ... and loses it to somebody that had a lot of bad luck and
was 400 or 500 points behind, I don't think that would be fair,''
Kenseth said. "But that's the new set of rules we have, and you
just have to take the first 26 weeks kind of like a qualifying
round to qualify for the last 10 races.

"That's the way we're all kind of looking at it and trying to
stay in that top 10.''

With 2,189 points, Kenseth is 94 points ahead of the driver in
10th place, Kevin Harvick. But he'd like to pad that margin with a
couple of solid finishes in his next few races -- and give his team
some momentum entering the final 10-race shootout.

The "Chase for the Championship'' starts with the Sept. 19 race
at Loudon, N.H.

"Whoever carries all the momentum into the last 10 races is
going to be tough to beat,'' Kenseth said.

Jeff Gordon comes to Sunday's Tropicana 400 with back-to-back
victories. He's also started from the pole in his last three races.

Though Gordon has yet to win on the 1½-mile track at the
Chicagoland Speedway, he's the only driver to complete every lap
run there. He has two top-five finishes in the three races there,

Kenseth hasn't fared as well, with his best finish seventh in
the inaugural race at the Chicagoland Speedway. He was 14th in 2002
and 12th last year.

Still, Kenseth is looking forward to this weekend's race. This
is the closest the NASCAR circuit comes to his hometown of
Cambridge, Wis., and he knows he'll have plenty of fans.

"I don't necessarily have more confidence ... but it definitely
is fun,'' he said. "I always get to see a lot of family and
friends, a lot of race fans that used to watch us race short track
stuff when we first started. So that definitely makes it a little
extra exciting.''