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Looks like Jack Roush and Company could be on a roll, with Matt Kenseth now back in gear


Back in victory lane, Matt Kenseth wants to battle for this year's NASCAR championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   The cat in the hat is sitting pretty fine right now…and Jack Roush is just getting to his really good tracks: California, Las Vegas and Atlanta.
   While Carl Edwards was the hot ticket coming into SpeedWeeks, it was unsung teammate Matt Kenseth getting the big win, his first in the 500, and car owner Jack Roush's first too.
   And for Kenseth, after a year or so of relatively mediocrity, after so many glory seasons with veteran crew chief Robbie Reiser, now the shop boss for Roush's five-team operation, the Daytona 500 victory could be just the shot in the arm he and his team need to catch fire.
   Last season, Kenseth's first without Reiser, promoted after nine years with Kenseth, was less then thrilling. Chief engineering Chip Bolin was promoted to crew chief, but found the baby-sitting part of that grind not quite to his liking. So Roush brought in Drew Blickensderfer, Kenseth's Nationwide crew chief, to run things, with Bolin back in the engineer's chair.
   While bad luck dogged Kenseth much of SpeedWeeks and he had to start at the rear of the field in a backup Ford, when the time was ripe, and Kyle Busch was sidelined, and all those Chevrolet teams gambled wrongly, Kenseth was right there to take advantage.
   However it may still take a while to sink in, Roush himself says.
   Not only was the win unexpected, even right up till the moment the race was finally called, but the Sprint Cup tour opens with a rush – Daytona to Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Atlanta…
   Nevertheless Roush says the experience so far has been quite humbling…which says something for a man who has won as much as he has over the years.
   That first Daytona 500 win, after some 20 years on the NASCAR tour, "is way different than I expected," Roush says. 
   "I had not planned on winning the Daytona 500.  I went for years, as a road racer, to the 24 Hours, and to a number of other road racing events.
   "In fact, I won 14 times in 14 different road racing events before I started the Sprint Cup racing. 
   "I thought when you went to Daytona you just picked up a trophy and grabbed $200 and didn't have to go to jail or anything….
   "I've been surprised to find the Daytona 500 has been so difficult."
   Particularly since Roush has had three July winners at Daytona, Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and last summer Jamie McMurray.

Warning! The cat in the hat is doing just fine, thank you (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

"But it was surprising there was so much pomp and circumstance about the enshrinement of the car in the Daytona 500 Experience (Monday after the 500)….that was an emotional thing," Roush said. "It had much more energy associated with it than I imagined. 
   "There was the ring in Victory Circle, I hadn't expected. And all the interviews…and a lot of well-wishing and congratulations that really surprised me, and humbled me beyond my description. 
   "This is my 22nd time in the Daytona 500, and I had pretty much put it out of mind that I would ever win a Daytona 500."
   Would Kenseth still have won if the race hadn't ended in rain?
   Roush conceded "I was surprised that it was rained out. 
    "I was checking weather when they finally called the race, and it came hours earlier than I expected.
   "But Matt's victory was a very popular victory among the crews and other teams."
   Kenseth is generally seen as a Mark Martin good-guy type driver (though he does have his rough-and-tumble moments on the track).
   In fact, the only problem with Kenseth winning is he, like Jimmie Johnson, needs to crank up his persona – low-keyed and efficient may work on the track, but out here in the marketplace – and Los Angeles is the biggest market NASCAR actually plays in – it takes razzmatazz.
   Maybe some of Edwards' charisma will rub off…
   But now, after the breaks and luck and what all of Daytona, it's back to driving and engineering. California's Auto Club Speedway can give both drivers and crew chiefs fits.
  Let's see what Blickensderfer can do here.
   "We had our debrief meeting as a group, with the crew chiefs and the engineers all together, and Drew's got a good grasp of it," Roush says of post-race Daytona. 
   "He knows he was very fortunate to have Matt miss the wrecks that collected so many cars. 
   "You normally don't have that kind of luck.
    "And then having the rain come just as Matt was able to pass (for the lead)…that was almost certainly not the last pass that would have been made if the race had run to its normal conclusion.
   "So it kind of fell in his lap…and he knows that. 
   "But the fact is he prepared a car that ran from 39th to first, and – arguably -- of the cars that survived, he had one of the best cars out there.
   "But when you take the 'snapshot' imposed by rain coming, and you know you're out of time, it's just happenstance that the result occurs in your favor."
  Still, the package worked, and this win could mark a turning point for this team.
  If Roush can keeps it working….
  "Chip Bolin is a great engineer, and he was a good crew chief," Roush said. "Certainly the success Matt had with Robbie was in great part enhanced by Chip and doing his magic. Chip is the leader for the entire team, for all the engineers, and he advises all the crew chiefs."
   The move last year? "Some of the magic Matt had with Robbie was lost when Robbie stepped away, and I take responsibility for not recognizing a hole there," Roush said.
   "With Drew we've made that adjustment.  
    "Looking at that crew -- the thing is they've been together since Robbie formed them nearly 10 years ago. So it's just a matter of a couple of things at the top to get it just perfect again."
   Without testing at California or Las Vegas, what to expect this weekend and next?
  "It plays to the strength of teams that have had success with this car and a good database," Roush says.
  And Roush says there is a considerable Detroit element at play too – Ford versus GM versus Toyota versus Chrysler-Dodge.
  "Ford technically gives us the ability to reduce a lot of data and reach some conclusions that may not be obvious," Roush says.
   "So the testing situation has played to our strength. 
   "And the fact we won at Daytona certainly gives us encouragement going to Talladega.
    "But restrictor plate races are -- as much as anything else -- a jump ball: Matt says the car behind him wrecked and the car in front of him wrecked on the Earnhardt-Vickers debacle.
   "You had to be in the right place to be able to get through that. The car's speed or the team's strategy doesn't actually have much to do with it.
   "Most of the time when you go to a restrictor plate race, you stand the prospect of being wrecked with either something that's not your fault or something you didn't mean to do.
   "On days when you can get through it, and have a good car at the end, you're really very lucky."

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