No time to panic for defending champ
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, too.
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.''
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press