- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Confidence isn't a problem for Matt Kenseth and his Robbie Reiser-led race team. Performance, on the other hand, has been something of an issue of late.
"I wouldn't say 'pep talk' is the right term. I think Robbie has more been there raising hell and trying to figure out why our cars aren't running the way they need to run, really."
-- Matt Kenseth, talking about Robbie Reiser
The good news is that the Chase for the Nextel Cup moves to Phoenix International Raceway this week, a far cry from the "intermediate-style" 1.5-mile tracks where Kenseth has struggled the past few weeks.
Sure, he finished fourth at Atlanta and 12th on Sunday at Texas, but those results were more a testament to Kenseth's tenacity, and a little racing luck, than anything else. Kenseth's Roush Racing Fords have been just a tad off the mark of late, and at this stage of the game, that's enough.
The points leader heading to Texas, Kenseth heads to the Valley of the Sun 17 points behind a surging Jimmie Johnson, who seemingly has all of the momentum Kenseth's team lacks. The good news is that Phoenix's quirky 1-mile layout is different than the ones he's been struggling on; the bad news is that it's still not one of his best tracks statistically.
The 2002 winner at Phoenix, Kenseth was third there in April. Still, his average finish at the track is just 20.8, so he's clearly been up and down there.
Kenseth, though, is confident in his team's confidence level.
"Robbie does a really good job of keeping all those guys on the same page and keeping them all stuck together and operating as a unit and not as individuals," Kenseth said. "I'm not really worried about that, we just need to figure out what we're doing wrong -- first of all with the cars and why we're not running good. We're missing something somewhere, or we're doing something different or have something wrong that we haven't figured out.
"I don't think anybody is losing confidence in that. I think if we show up at Phoenix and we have a competitive car, I think they'll still operate like a championship team, and if we don't, we'll probably be down a little bit as to why we can't get the cars better. But certainly on race day we'll battle through it and work on it as hard as we can."
The one thing Kenseth said isn't required is a pep talk from Reiser. The team is extremely close-knit, with a number of the crew members hailing from Wisconsin, home to both the driver and crew chief.
Sure, the team has undergone changes from the unit that won the 2003 championship, but there's still a unity that might make a difference over the next two weeks.
That bond is one reason Reiser will be talking plenty with the team, even if it's not the traditional pep talk.
"I wouldn't say 'pep talk' is the right term. I think Robbie has more been there raising hell and trying to figure out why our cars aren't running the way they need to run, really," Kenseth said. "I think they're pretty good. Most of us have been together a long time.
"They've been doing a great job on car prep as far as stuff not falling off, and they've been doing a good job on pit road and keeping us in these things and battling through no matter how we're running. These guys have been around a while and they understand there are always ups and downs. We've had a lot of ups this season, and right now we're having a few downs at the bad time, so, if anything, I think he's there trying to figure out what we are doing wrong and what we can do to get back on track."
Reiser said Kenseth will be driving the same car he used at the track back in the spring. He just hopes it performs as well as it did in that race, which was won by Kevin Harvick.
Although the team appeared to be back on track a few weeks ago, the performance dropped off again the last two races. That's left Reiser searching for the missing ingredient.
"We have to get our cars running better and give ourselves a chance on Sunday. We can't keep pulling out top-15 finishes from cars that can barely run in the top 25," Reiser said. "We're very fortunate to finish where we did in Texas.
"We didn't run anywhere near as good as we finished, but I have to credit the guys on the team. They never quit and we found a way to get a respectable finish. We feel pretty good about the car we're bringing this weekend. We can't afford anything less than our best in these next two races if we're going to have a chance to win it all."
There's no explaining momentum and where it comes from and where it goes. A few weeks ago, Johnson seemed like a long shot for the championship and now he's arguably the favorite for this first title.
Having one championship to his credit, Kenseth knows what it takes to capture the prize. Still, if his Ford is not at its best on Sunday, he knows that could cause him to force the issue, a situation that often leads to mistakes.
Knowing there's no magic pill to take to turn things around, he's still optimistic because it doesn't take much to make up 17 points in two races.
"You don't want to hope that somebody has bad luck or hope to win it like that or anything, but, honestly, we're not performing anywhere in the league that they are right now for whatever reason," Kenseth said of Johnson's team. "Most of the year we have, but ever since Kansas -- for whatever reason -- we've been off and haven't been able to get that back.
"But going to Phoenix is a different track. It's a lot different than those intermediate tracks and we've run pretty well there in the past. Hopefully, we can go there and get it on track and at least run with those guys."
While there likely won't be any pep talks in the days ahead, Kenseth won't be sweating things, either. Despite the on-track struggles of late, he said he's more relaxed than he can remember in a long time.
"I kind of did some different things to help myself -- managing my time and what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to," Kenseth said. "[You] kind of concentrate on it as hard as you can and think about the cars and do all that stuff, but not get so wound up in what everybody is saying or where exactly you are in the points -- just go in every week and run as hard as you can and go home and figure out how to make it better."
Rest assured, Kenseth and Reiser are doing a whole lot of figuring these days.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.