Follow me on

Twitter Feed Facebook Feed RSS Feed Linked In Youtube

Wow, a calm day at the race track? That's a surprise. Calm before the All-Star storm?

 Old-school crew chief Jimmy Fennig and old-school driver Matt Kenseth: the winning pair at Dover (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   DOVER, Del.
   Well now….No histrionics, no temper-tantrums, no bruised feelings, although maybe a little embarrassment at getting outfoxed.

    For a change, NASCAR drivers had a fairly sane outing here Sunday.
    But then with the usually wild and zany All-Star weekend looming, maybe it was calm before the next storm.
    And after savage crashes here in Friday's Truck race and Saturday's Nationwide race, maybe drivers simply decided to play it cool for a day.
    With rain hanging over the track during the morning, the early game plan, after all, was to play just to get to halfway, without a lot of down time for cautions.
    In the end the weather was a factor, but in an unexpected way – the sun came out, the tire rubber turned treacherous, and track position wound up being more critical than fresh rubber for the final 30-mile sprint.
   Credit Matt Kenseth for having the cool to figure it all out – while sitting on jackstands for his final pit stop.
   In the blink of an eye Kenseth decided his best shot at finishing better than sixth or seventh, where he'd been running, was to gamble on just two new tires, while most of the front runners were taking four.
   Credit crew chief Jimmy Fennig for making the quick call to his crew in response.
   And with two wins now, Kenseth and Fennig seem shoe-ins for the championship playoffs with team owner Jack Roush, though they don't start till September.
   Two wins and into the playoffs?
   "Jimmy's goal and Jack's and mine is to not have to worry about that," Kenseth insists. "My mind is to be up there and try to lead those points going into the chase, and try to make the chase and be in championship form, and be able to put together more wins and race for a championship.
    "We don't want to slide in off wins if we are 18th in points. We want to go up there and race like this every week."
   Fennig agrees: "If you aren't winning, and you go into the chase and you aren't able to win races, or your equipment isn't good enough to win races, then you don't belong there."


What the heck is wrong with Smoke this season? If you've got answers, Tony Stewart says he's willing to listen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Fennig, Kenseth's new crew chief this season, is old-school, something like Kenseth himself. Kenseth, when the Roush engineers last summer finally figured out what they'd been missing in chassis and setups for so long, didn't seem all that comfortable with the new stuff. And when this season opened Kenseth was working on a two-year winless streak.
   "This is the most competitive we've been since this car was introduced, however long that's been," Kenseth said, reflecting on the previous three-plus years with this high-center-of-gravity stock car.
   "But the last three weeks (Talladega, Richmond and Darlington) have been really frustrating for me. I don't think I have done a very good job.
   "Talladega, I don't think we could do anything about that; it was just dumb luck.
    "Richmond, being involved in that wreck -- if I had been more aware of my surroundings, I could have avoided that.
     "Last week too, even though the car outside me was low, I didn't do a good job and ran into Marcos Ambrose and got a slow leak in the tire, and a half hour into the Southern 500 we were three laps down.
    "Still our cars have been really fast. At Richmond that was the best car I have had there since they introduced the COT, which was really encouraging.
    "If you have a bad finish but are running good, then you feel better about it, and it gives you hope you can have days like today."


Jack Roush: a little nervous watching Matt Kenseth vs Mark Martin down the stretch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    So the Kenseth-Fennig pairing seems to be working.
   "I have known him for a long time," Kenseth said, "and he might tell you he isn't comfortable with me yet. But it didn't take long for me.
    "You go through a little bit to understand somebody -- about how loose is he, and how urgent does he sound.
    "But I have always respected Jimmy and really enjoy working for him. He has a no-nonsense racing approach, which is how I grew up racing.
    "Who knows what next week is going to bring. But I feel pretty good about it now, because even in some of the bad finishes we've had, we still performed much better than we have in the past.
    "It really feels for sure like we're on the right track."

    And that could give Roush another bullet in his championship gun. Carl Edwards, who dominated Sunday's 400, goes into the All-Star break atop the Sprint Cup point standings. Now Kenseth is coming on strong. Teammates Greg Biffle (off Sunday, with a throttle linkage issue) and David Ragan may be more problematic, though.
   For Roush, the stretch here was ironic. He'd started in this branch of the sport with Martin, and then he gave Kenseth his big break.
   "This is my 24th year in Cup….and I didn't start until I was 46 years old," Roush mused. "That was with Mark…and when I was watching Matt and Mark race out there today, well, the reason Matt came to my attention years ago was because Mark told me that Matt was the guy that asked the right questions and had a good attitude about his racing and was a really good person that I needed to have a conversation with and see if we could get involved with our program.
    "Matt and Mark have that connection, past the race teams, and a mutual respect. I was sure that was going to be okay for them.
    "In fact the thing that had me concerned was I was afraid we were going to find ourselves saying 'You go first'…'No, you go first.'
     "I thought either one of them might be slow to race as hard as they needed to with the other one to let the issue be resolved."



Marcos Ambrose: the hard-charging Aussie is trying to learn this season, and patience is right there at the top of his agenda (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Meanwhile, frustrations continue to mount in the Tony Stewart-Ryan Newman camp.
    "I've never driven so hard for so little," Newman said. "We just couldn't get it right."
    He finished 21st, two laps down….but better than his teammate, who had a malfunction with the new fueling cans during an early pit stop which forced a second stop and left Stewart three laps down. Things went downhill from there; Stewart wound up six laps down, continuing a spring slump.
    Kyle Busch, on the other hand, rallied from a bad day to an almost miraculous fourth place finish.
   "Considering how far behind we were when this weekend started, this was a great finish," Busch said. "We had an engine failure in the first practice on Friday, and I put it in the fence in the second practice, so I got us behind. It was my fault."
    So Busch had to start dead last. And he didn't run well during the three-hour race.
    But Busch wrangled up to 12th for the final restart with 35 miles to go, and he put on quite a display with his late charge.
    Busch has been lead dog in the Joe Gibbs camp, and teammates Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin again had rough days.

   Marcos Ambrose, whose first year in Petty Fords has been erratic so far, had his best finish of the year, third. 
  "When I am having a bad day, I have trouble feeling each tire," Ambrose said. "I feel like the car is slipping around and I can't really feel which one it is.
   "On concrete (like this track) the steeper banking helps me feel the tires."
   And Sunday's 400 was definitely a tire race, with rubber buildup on the track a major concern for drivers.
   "The track was changing every run throughout the run," Ambrose said. "The car was getting really slick on that rubber.
    "You couldn't ask for much change on the car because you knew it would be that way all day. You just had to change your line and keep searching."
    The aggressive Ambrose has been trying to learn some patience. "We had a really good day at Darlington but it didn't work out at the end," Ambrose said. "We've had some terrible luck.
   "But we have two top-10s on the 1-1/2-mile speedways, and I am really excited that our team is learning: They are learning me, and I am learning them…I am learning how these cars work. It is going to lead to a great Charlotte, Pocono, Indy, Kansas, all those tracks coming up."


   Jimmy Fennig (R) has more than 25 years in this sport, so when he speaks, drivers listen. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

© 2010-2011 www.mikemulhern.net All rights reserved.
Web site by www.webdesigncarolinas.com