- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Blowing an engine in the season opener isn't any racer's idea of a flying start. But it doesn't have to be a harbinger of doom, either.
And so Matt Kenseth might want to remember recent history to soothe his psyche after a disastrous Daytona 500 last week.
Just three years ago, Tony Stewart was driving back to North Carolina well before the Daytona 500 had reached its halfway point. A last-place finish rode along with him, but it wasn't enough to keep him down.
Stewart would recover -- becoming the Nextel Cup champion -- to provide hope for others who suffer through a bad opening weekend. And he won the championship before the Chase for the Nextel Cup was ever envisioned, proving a deep hole could easily be overcome.
And so Kenseth takes that knowledge with him into Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, where he will start sixth after a solid qualifying run on Saturday. Engine failure a week earlier left him 42nd in points, but in reality his hole isn't as deep as Stewart's.
Granted, Stewart had the rest of the season to rise to the top, but all Kenseth needs to do is make it into the top 10 over the next 25 races. After that, he can make an all-out charge for the crown.
His first chance to turn things around will come at Fontana, where he finished fourth last May and 22nd in September. He has three top-10s in six starts at the 2-mile facility and is eager to turn the page.
"It will be nice to forget about our Daytona weekend and focus on [a track] where we've run well in the past," Kenseth said.
Kenseth will have a new Roush Racing Ford at his disposal, one the team tested at California during the preseason. Crew chief Robbie Reiser says the car was strong during the two-day session.
"Our goal for the weekend is to put Daytona behind us and run like the top-10 team we know we can be," Reiser said.
Kenseth agreed after his run of 186.998 mph in qualifying. Immediately after his lap, he said he hoped it would remain a top-15 run; he got much more than that.
"I've been happy with our car," he said. "It's been surprisingly fast the whole time we've been here and it's been driving good, so I'm looking forward to the race."
If Kenseth does get back in his usual groove, he may have to worry about being all dressed up during much of the 2006 season. During the annual stop at Roush Racing during the preseason media tour, Kurt Busch was the one in a sport coat, while Kenseth was dressed more casually in jeans and a golf shirt.
Busch, of course, is the series' defending champion, the role Kenseth played last year after winning the championship in 2003.
Kenseth made the Chase last year, but the final 10 races weren't what he envisioned. Still, a year in which he won two races, not to mention the Nextel All-Star Challenge non-points event, was hardly a disappointment. That doesn't even take into account his International Race of Champions title and the $1 million that came with it.
Still, Kenseth's goals are higher this year. The team has made some personnel changes and the hope is that the chemistry returns to the level attained in 2003.
"Toward the end of the year we definitely did have fall off," Kenseth said. "That was the most disappointing part of the year is how we ended it. We had some personnel move around and change a little bit and I think that will help. I think every once in a while you have to mix it up and get some new blood in there and change things around and kind of get everybody energized. I think anything gets a little bit stale after a while no matter what you're doing, so it seems like everybody is excited, everybody is working good together."
So is a top-10 finish after 26 races something Kenseth considers a foregone conclusion this season?
"I think my team is a top-10 team and I think we have top-10 equipment," Kenseth said. "With that being said, I think there are 25 teams out there that are top-10 teams and have top-10 equipment, so a lot of it has to do with luck. I hate using that word, but good racing fortune, not having flat tires at the wrong time, getting wrecked, stuff breaking -- whatever.
"A lot has to do with how you run every week and to be in the top 10, like it's always been forever, is about consistency and when you can be consistent. There are races I can think of where we were running in the top 10 and have a problem at the end and finish 35th. Those are the things that take you out of top 10s. You have to have those things go right for you."
Losing an engine right out of the box might seem like the type of performance Kenseth was warning against, but Reiser knows such races are inevitable. The key is how a team rebounds from adversity.
Heading into the season's second race, he's not at all concerned.
"It's only one race, you can't get too excited," Reiser said. "I was real happy with the way we ran [in Daytona]. I was real excited with that. Breaking is part of this deal and you've got to live with it once in a while. We've got a pretty good car [for Fontana], so I'm pretty excited about this weekend.
"You've got to forget about [Daytona]. It's a week-to-week thing and you've got to do your best. Once in a while you'll have a part failure like we had and you come back the next week and go get 'em."
One thing that could help Kenseth this season is that he won't have the extra demands on his time that come with being champion. While some navigate the burdens easily, Kenseth knows there are things he'll do differently if he's in a similar situation in the future.
"I did too much stuff last winter, I did too much stuff in the spring, I did too much stuff in the summer," Kenseth said of 2004. "I kind of burned myself out. Although I don't feel like it really hurt my performance, it made my job a lot less fun and I wasn't as enthusiastic at the end of the year as what I have been any other year.
"My whole team was kind of like that, too, at the end of the year, so I would definitely do things different from that aspect. I would try to save a little of my own time and some of the little extra things that I volunteered to do that I wouldn't have had to do, I maybe wouldn't have done to get rested up a little bit more."
There were no such burdens this offseason, and Kenseth clearly is refreshed and ready for another run at the title.
"This winter, I don't think I left the house at all except to go up to Wisconsin a little bit and do our tests and get ready for the season," he said. "I'm really enthused for the year."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
After a championship in 2003, Matt Kenseth felt drained in '04. Now, despite bad Daytona luck, he's charged up.