- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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To some, Matt Kenseth will always be the poster boy where the Chase for the Nextel Cup is concerned.
Truth be told, it was as much coincidence as anything that Kenseth happened to be the last driver to win the championship based on a full season's worth of work.
That was in 2003, the last year Winston sponsored NASCAR's top series. Knowing that a new sponsor would lead to new opportunities, it now appears it was hardly a coincidence that NASCAR's PR mavens began focusing on the importance of being in the top 10 prior to that year's Daytona 500.
It didn't seem like a big deal until the end of the season, when word of the format that would become the Chase first started to trickle out. Considering that was just after Kenseth's methodical -- yet uninspiring -- march to the title had concluded, it's easy to see why some felt the Chase was designed to end such title "fights."
Kenseth won only once in '03, with 11 top-5s and 25 top-10s. It was a season worthy of a champion, but it had many saying the champ should win more than one race. It was a scenario Brian France couldn't have scripted any better himself -- and the Chase was introduced in January 2004, spicing things up just as Nextel took over for Winston.
So even though Tony Stewart won the championship in '05 despite failing to win a race in the Chase (he did win five times during the 26-race "regular season"), many still put more focus on Kenseth when it comes time to go Chasing.
And not surprisingly, the consistency that had some criticizing Kenseth in '03 has placed him in the Chase each of its four seasons. Second to Jimmie Johnson a year ago, Kenseth enters Sunday's Dodge Dealers 400 at Dover International Speedway seventh in points, 54 out of the lead.
Given his choice, Kenseth would take the season-long route to a title. But he's fine trying to win under this format as well. He thinks the champion is worthy no matter the format.
"I don't think you can take one away from the other and say, 'This is a good representation of it and this isn't,'" Kenseth said. "I think whatever they make the rules, that's how you've got to make them work and go from there. My personal favorite, just because I'm kind of a traditionalist and enjoy the history of the sport of what went on before, so I like the traditional format. I like having to race 36 weeks and not make any mistakes and run hard and be good at all the tracks, the road courses, and all those kind of tracks.
I think the Chase format has certainly made it more exciting for the fans. I think it re-energizes everybody once football season starts.
"I enjoy that part of it, but yet, honestly, my favorite way is whatever the fans like the most and whatever is the most exciting. I think the Chase format has certainly made it more exciting for the fans. I think it re-energizes everybody once football season starts. We've already been racing for 28 weeks [including the Budweiser Shootout and Nextel All-Star Challenge] or something like that, and I think it kind of gets everybody jacked up about racing again, and gives them something to watch and follow and kind of see who the champion is, whereas, if it was the old format, Jeff [Gordon] would have this thing pretty well wrapped up."
Instead, Johnson and Gordon are tied atop the standings with Stewart in third, just 10 points back. Kenseth is obviously within striking distance, as is every member of the top 12 with nine races remaining.
At the moment, Stewart is the only driver to have won championships under the old format and via the Chase, something Kenseth is hoping to accomplish by season's end. He's yet to win a race during the Chase but hasn't been frustrated since simply making the Chase is an accomplishment in itself.
Kenseth and Johnson are the only drivers to have made the Chase all four seasons, as the likes of Stewart, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have each missed at least once.
"Obviously, it's a difficult thing to do. It's difficult to put together a good 26 races to be in that top 10, so I'm real proud of my team for being able to accomplish that," Kenseth said. "Of course, we want to take that a step farther and win the Chase, as does everybody in the top 12 who makes it, so we're doing everything we can and, hopefully, we can keep being consistent and get running a little bit better and have a shot."
Seventh at New Hampshire to open the Chase, Kenseth now heads to the 1-mile, high-banked oval in Delaware, where he finished fifth in June. Kenseth, though, wasn't at all satisfied with how his Roush Fenway Racing Ford ran that day as he felt his team was a bit behind on adapting to the Car of Tomorrow.
He won't be surprised if Martin Truex Jr., who won at Dover in June, starts out with a similar setup to that race, but Kenseth expects to be starting from scratch.
"I feel like, hopefully, we've made our stuff a lot better. I know from the first Richmond [race] to the second Richmond we ran a drastically different setup," Kenseth said. "I know from the first New Hampshire to the second New Hampshire we ran a drastically different setup and ran a fair amount better, so I expect our stuff to be quite a bit different than what we ran last time and, hopefully, that means we'll be a little better."
Crew chief Robbie Reiser -- who joins Chad Knaus (with Johnson) and Pat Tryson (with Mark Martin and now Kurt Busch) as the only crew chiefs to make the Chase all four years -- is counting on running better than the team did at Dover in June.
"We've had some success at Dover in the past, but we've also had our share of heartache, too. The car we're taking is the same one that we took to Dover in June, and a lot has changed with our approach since then," Reiser said. "Hopefully we've gone a long ways in the right direction and we'll have a shot at this thing on Sunday.
"I felt like Sunday at Loudon was a good step for us. It was a solid day on pit road and we were able to make the car better all race. If the race was a little bit longer, then we [might have] gotten a top-5, but there's nothing we can do about that now. We'll just take what we learned, move on and hopefully compete for the win at Dover. With this team, it's always been 'one race at a time,' and that approach won't change now."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.