Can Kenseth ride momentum into Chase?
Matt Kenseth -- albeit cool, calm and soft-spoken on and off the track -- certainly knows how to announce an arrival.
The driver of the No. 17 Ford dominated Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, leading 415 of 500 laps to climb four spots in the Nextel Cup points standings. The former series champ pulled within 11 points of making the Chase for the Nextel Cup with two races remaining to make up the gap.
Kenseth, who for much of the year was the lone driver in the Roush Racing stable outside of the top 10, has finished among the top-five in three of his last four races thanks to fast cars, crew chief Robbie Reiser's gutsy calls and Kenseth's own steady hand. Kenseth and Co. are up from 17th in the points just five races ago -- an improvement from the 42nd-place points position the team was in after the season-opening Daytona 500.
Now, within 11 points of 10th-place Jeff Gordon and with only 31 points separating 17th from eighth place, the team is hitting its stride and confident it can cover the spread over the next two weeks at California Speedway and Richmond International Raceway, the final two events of the regular season.
"I'd all but written off our chances to get in three races ago, but Robbie and the guys didn't lose the faith and they've kept it going," team owner Jack Roush said. "I was building toward next year all the way, but they've got it turned around now. It's going to be a horse race when they go to Richmond."
For Kenseth, it's a relief just to be competitive again.
From the moment the first green flag fell in 2005, Roush Racing has been dominant. Greg Biffle has spent all but one week of the season among the top 10. Same for defending champion Kurt Busch. Mark Martin has been among the top 10 for all but two weeks. And although Carl Edwards has spent 10 weeks outside the top 10, he's never fallen below 14th.
The No. 17 team, however, struggled. It finished 42nd in the Daytona 500 and was still mired in the 30s five races later. Midway through the year, the team fought its way to 21st place, but inconsistency was the only constant, and both Kenseth and Reiser admit that the troubles couldn't always be blamed on bad luck. Sitting in that funk, it wasn't always easy for the 2003 Cup champ to watch the other four horses in the Roush stable.
"When your teammates are winning you're very happy for them," he said, "but in another way when they're winning and you're not winning, you start looking at yourself. You're certainly not jealous of them or anything like that, but maybe you get down a little bit on yourself or wonder why we're not winning and they're out running good."
It's not as if the team was sandbagging until this final push to the finish. Kenseth said it was a slap in the face, sometimes, to go all out and limp home with poor finishes because the team was pouring everything into the cars each week.
"Making the Chase starts at Daytona," he insisted. "It didn't start two weeks ago or a month ago -- [or] whenever we started running better. Growing up [as] short-track racers you approach every race the same. You show up every week with your best game and your best stuff and work as hard as you can and get the best result that you can get that day."
Many days, that was an unheralded 30th-place result for the No. 17 team. But with two weeks left before the Chase field is set, the boys have ridden out their slump and appear poised to contend for a title.
Eleventh place with 12 races remaining in the season doesn't spell contention, not with 622 points separating the team from first. But with the Chase format, if Kenseth and Co. are 10th or better following Richmond, they'll benefit from a resetting of points, which puts each driver only five points apart from one another and creates a gap of only 50 from first to 10th. That's instant contention, and all of a sudden the most dangerous guy in the field is the one who covered the most ground and overcame the biggest odds to get there.
"I know in our business that momentum is very important," Kenseth said. "It's a weird thing. If we do make the Chase and we do get to the top 10, I'll feel really good about it -- not just because we made the top 10 because, to me, it's not just about making the top 10. I mean, if I'm going to finish seventh in points or 12th in points, honestly, I don't really care.
"If we make the top 10, I want to make the top 10 with a chance at winning a championship. I feel like we're running good enough to be a threat. It's only five points [separating each points] position [in the playoffs] and, if we can get in that, I think we could be a threat to challenge everybody with the way everybody is running right now. That's what I feel the best about."
For Roush's part, he feels best about being wrong. He was certain his No. 17 car was out of playoff contention and, at times, grew frustrated with some of Reiser's on- and off-track gambles. But on Saturday night, Roush wasn't too proud to bite his tongue during the race and revel in the excitement of contention afterward.
"Robbie and I don't see eye to eye every once in awhile on pit road," Roush said, "but tonight he was at his best and I stayed out of it so it worked out OK."
Certainly appreciative of Roush's confidence, Reiser says his boss is often much more supportive than he makes himself out to be. What's more, Reiser believes this attitude pervades the entire shop and is part of the reason the guys were able to rebound and make this improbable playoff run.
"I think in the first part of the year, Jack was ready to fire me," Reiser said. "[But I've] probably [got] the best team I've ever had -- and that's a lot to say considering we won a championship in 2003 -- but this group of people that we've got right now, they don't get down; they keep working. Obviously, this was a good testament of it tonight. This team hasn't run that well this year, but the last couple of weeks it's been really coming around and these guys have stuck into it and I don't have one guy that has spent the season complaining. They've pretty much just gone to work."
And now, they're about this close to playoff qualification, too.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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