Life is Good, very, very good for Matt Kenseth (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Matt's still fast, yes!
In fact Matt Kenseth is still the fastest at Daytona, and the Daytona 500 winner could become the first driver in 30 years to sweep both races here.
Just days after telling Jack Roush, his team owner for 14 years now, that he would be leaving the Ford camp at the end of the season, Kenseth appears bent on proving he is no lame duck.
Kenseth's Daytona-winning car is still over at the museum on International Speedway Blvd. But the car he has here for the 400 is the same one he dominated with at Talladega.
And, yep, it's looking like yet another Jack Roush versus Rick Hendrick Saturday night at the track looming, after stock car racing's two kingpins ripped through Coke 400 qualifying.
Roush-powered cars and Hendrick-powered cars dominated Friday afternoon qualifying at Daytona International Speedway, with Sprint Cup tour leader Matt Kenseth taking dead aim at a Daytona sweep with a pole-winning run at 192.386 mph...just a tick quicker than Tony Stewart.
But after qualifying NASCAR busted Stewart for an aerodynamic violation and disallowed his time, ordering him to the rear of the field for the 7:30 p.m. start. Ironically that put Stewart's teammate Ryan Newman on the front row next to Kenseth.
Kenseth led Roush Ford pack; Stewart was the fastest of the Hendrick-powered men, until NASCAR ruled that a loose air hose inside the car was too much of an aero edge. Roush and Hendrick men swept the top seven spots.
That penalty on Stewart is the same one, for the same violation, that Nationwide driver Austin Dillon received earlier in the afternoon, which dropped Dillon from the pole to the rear. Dillon was busted just last weekend after winning Kentucky's Nationwide race, and when NASCAR announces any further penalties in the next few days speculation is that Dillon could be hit with a $50,000 fine and 12-point penalty.
Brad Keselowski, winner at Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky, figures he's got a good chance for another upset...which by this point in the season wouldn't be much of an upset at all.
But how? Among the questions in the 400, can someone pull a surprise with a late-race breakaway, like Keselowski did in beating Kenseth at Talladega two months ago.
Kenseth is still kicking himself for letting Keselowski get away like that.
While the future of Dodge in NASCAR is up for debate, Keselowski and team owner Roger Penske -- who are jumping to Ford next season -- are kicking butt.
And for those worried about Dodge perhaps folding its tent at the end of 2012, without any teams yet on its 2013 NASCAR roster, the good news is that Chrysler officials, according to company sources, have just ordered a full inventory of Penske's NASCAR engine operation (80-men strong), with firm indications the company will buy Penske's Dodge operation and go into the NASCAR 'customer engine' business itself, just as Toyota does with its Los Angeles-based TRD NASCAR engine building program.
Such a move by Chrysler would open the door for someone like Michael Andretti to venture into NASCAR with a new Sprint Cup team (even though Penske himself has warned Andretti that running a NASCAR team requires five times as many people and three times as much money to operate as an Indy-car team).
One Dodge question is whether the Richard Petty two-car team, currently fielding Fords, with factory support, would stick with Ford or move to Dodge.
More immediately: NASCAR's limits on engine cooling had drivers at Talladega spending more time watching temperature gauges than actually racing each other, drivers said. NASCAR loosened cooling limits a bit for this 400, but how much that will actually change things is unclear.
Despite Friday's qualifying, Toyota engineers insist Ford engines do not have any edge in cooling. The fastest Toyota driver, Martin Truex Jr., was only 19th, but the draft makes qualifying speeds all but superfluous, since the pace in the draft will be right at 200 mph.
The 'closing rate' in a draft -- how fast a driver can suck up through the draft to the leader -- is something of an unknown; drivers haven't spent much time practicing for the actual race. They spent more time practicing for the better-of-two-laps qualifying and to check water temperatures.
"You really didn't know how fast anybody could run in qualifying," Kenseth said. "Marcos Ambrose and (teammate) Aric Almirola teamed up in Thursday practice and ran down the pack, and that gave them the fast speed, but that was drafting and didn't say much about how fast they really were.
"I never thought I was really good at speedway racing like this. But we've certainly got a fast enough car to keep us in the mix, if we can figure out what to do. At Talladega I didn't do a good enough job on that last restart keeping Greg (Biffle) on my bumper."
And Keselowski slipped away to win. Here? "You try not to put too much stock in qualifying at a plate track," Keselowski said after qualifying ninth in Paul Wolfe's Dodge. "Plate races have always been a strength of our....and our car is one of the fastest I've ever driven."
NASCAR officials seem determined to keep drivers from pairing up, despite whatever problems the engine cooling limit rules create.
"We will have to see how things go with the elevated temps," Jimmie Johnson says. "It has made for some interesting racing -- you have to really manage your temps all day long...which is a different type of racing than we are used to.
"With the overheating issues, track position is now everything....you can't ride in the back. I'm not sure how, mid-pack, it is going to be to manage your temps.
"And the track is so narrow that with 30 to go or 20 to go, you can't just march up through the field and get to the front. "