Matt Kenseth has made a career out of being the quiet sneaky type.
Never one to make a strong presence during the race, Kenseth was more of a silent, methodical driver who would always be at the front when it mattered most. His name could never be mentioned all day but when the pay window opened he was there to collect.
It’s what helped him earned the nickname Mr. Consistency.
However, in 2009 Mr. Consistency suddenly became Mr. Human when the racing world saw a different side to Kenseth and his No. 17 team: they missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship for the first time. Not only did they miss the Chase but the struggles they endured were apparent and their statistics were scary.
In 36 races in 2009, after winning the first two races of the season, things quickly went downhill as the team only compiled 12 top ten finishes, seven top fives, and finished the year 14th in points. Before the Chase started last year Kenseth said it best, “If you take out the first couple of weeks of the season, the season has been a little bit of a disappointment.”
With his team in a down-slide it caused many, myself included to say that he was no longer Mr. Consistency, at least for the time being. But after the first six races of the 2010 season it might be safe to say that Kenseth has retaken his title or is on the path to doing so.
He's already racked up five top tens in the first six races, could have had another Monday at Martinsville had it not been for late race contact with Jeff Gordon. Three of those top tens were top fives, including a fantastic finish in Atlanta where he came up short of catching Kurt Busch to challenge for the win. His early season statistics have him fourth in points, just 16 markers behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
Quite a change from last season when they’ll admit they couldn’t even see the leaders. A change, that is due in part to another change: crew chief. Todd Parrott has become the head cheerleader of the Killer Bees, and a cheerleader he is. Constantly on the radio pumping his driver and team up as they progress through the field.
On Friday Kenseth spoke to the media during his top-12 point eligibility and spoke highly of Parrott. He revealed that they even joke that they’re in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, “Everyone ask how it’s going and I always tell them, ‘we’re still kinda on the honeymoon,’ so we’ll see how it goes.” He then added, “It’s been going really well, I enjoy working with him, he’s got a lot of experience and the guys really look up to him as a leader.”
A leader that the team desperately needed, especially after Kenseth surprisingly admitted that he wasn’t that type of person. When the change was made after the first race of the year, the Daytona 500, many wondered if the transition would be a smooth one and how long it would take for results to show. Didn’t take long and the talk then turned to how Parrott was the perfect guy for the job.
Says Kenseth, “He’s got some good leadership qualities about him, so I’ve enjoyed the first few weeks, and we’ve been running pretty well. As an organization we’ve been running a lot better than what we ended up last year… obviously it’s very early in the season and we had a couple off weeks and rest, so we’ll really see what it’s about in a couple of months.”
In a couple of months Kenseth could potentially have asserted himself as a strong contender for this years championship. Showing that 2009 was a throwaway year and not what the team is capable of, nor what others should get used to. No, this team is more of a, how did they do that, race team. For example, when they won the championship in 2003 they did so with only one win, but had 25 top 10s and 11 top fives.
Year after year they got the job done, went out and clicked off the finishes and wins. Unfortunately for Kenseth, being good at his job meant that he was a robot and took on the personality of being the quiet, shy type that never showed any real emotion. That’s what made him a champion driver, he could stay cool, calm and collected under any circumstance. Didn’t make it surprising that during 2009 Kenseth was the patient one, confident that things would turn around.
But when they didn’t and after only one race in 2010 the crew chief change was made it raised many eyebrows of why it had happened so quickly before the hard work during the offseason really had a chance to show. This was one situation where it was ok to make a knee jerk reaction as Kenseth explained; “I certainly haven’t done the best job at that, being patient with it. Obviously you get further down the road and later in your career and you can’t get that back, but there’s a certain amount of patience you need to get things turned around to be where you’re at.”
He continued stating, “but on the other hand I think sometimes I’ve been too patient and been way too reluctant to make changes or try different things. Or maybe dig in there deeper and be involved more, even in parts where the driver didn’t need to be involved, that type of thing.”
It’s amazing the changes both the team and driver will make when they have a year they aren’t accustomed to. However, it wasn’t just Kenseth’s team, the entire Roush-Fenway organization seemed off their game last season as teammate Carl Edwards, who won nine races in 2008, went winless. As did Biffle, who was a two-time winner that year, so Roush went to work knowing that things couldn’t continue like they had.
So far so good in 2010 as Kenseth seems primed as the senior member of the company to lead their resurgence. He’s also on a resurgence of getting his Mr. Consistency nickname back, something that will help lead his No. 17 Crown Royal team back into the Chase. Back to contending for a championship they have the confidence to go after.
What a difference a year makes.
“It hasn’t been easy, you know when things are going right and everything’s flowing and you’re being successful, it’s easy for everybody to be in a good mood,” Kenseth says.
“When things go bad it’s hard not to push the panic button or to get too down or get the whole thing tore apart. Just gotta keep working on it each week and you really try to put the week before behind you as soon as you can and move onto the next week and start thinking about what you got to do,” Kenseth said on Friday.
“Just try to learn from them and get stronger.”
Stronger they are, and if they keep getting stronger throughout the year the Sprint Cup Series’ quiet, sneaky driver could be the one making the most noise in the Chase.