Photos courtesy Toyota Racing
BRISTOL, Tenn. — There was a time when Matt Kenseth owned Bristol Motor Speedway.
Over a five-year span from 2002 through 2006, nobody in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage had as good a handle on the half-mile, high-banked layout than Kenseth, who reeled off six consecutive top-10 finishes in Bristol before dominating two consecutive night races in 2005 and 2006.
Kenseth led 532 out of the 1,000 laps run in those two victories and appeared to have the place figured out. But after seven years, two generations of race cars, two major changes to the racing surface and a jump from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing, his mastery seems like a distant memory.
The 41-year-old will try to wake those echoes in Thunder Valley this afternoon in the Food City 500.
Coming off an emotional win in Las Vegas on his birthday last week, he seems to like his chances.
“Winning always builds confidence whenever it happens,” Kenseth said. “I think all of us went into the season with a lot of confidence, and I think that reinforces what we think we can do. It’s still early in the year and we’ve got to be able to keep it up.”
The chemistry between Kenseth and his new race team seems to be coming along nicely.
Jason Ratliff, Kenseth’s crew chief, credits his driver for going out of his way to forge relationships with the crew members on his No. 20 team.
“I feel like Matt has done a good job and has been intentional about being in the shop, hanging out with his team and getting that chemistry going,” Ratliff said. “We knew that we would have success. Did we think we’d get it where it needed to be to have that kind of success early? We didn’t say we wouldn’t.
“For it to come this early in the year says we’ve done a good job to speed up that learning curve.”
Kenseth had the same crew chief for his entire NASCAR career until 2007. He started with Robbie Reiser on top of his pit box in 1997, and Reiser moved up to Cup with Kenseth in 2000, the driver’s rookie year.
Reiser and Kenseth won 16 Cup races and a series championship together, and their strong partnership was a big part for Kenseth’s success. But Kenseth said the relationship between a driver and a crew chief is only one small piece of the puzzle.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces there,” he said. “I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s not just about the driver and crew chief getting along, and them jelling together.
“That’s always the big story, and that’s very important, but it’s also about the team — the guys on the road, the guys over the wall and all that group jelling together. I think it’s the whole unit being able to work together.”
While Victory Lane at BMS is a very familiar place, the path to get there is very different than the one Kenseth took in 2005 and 2006. He used to keep his Ford low through the turns, holding it steady over the bumps in the weathered concrete so he could stay in the only groove worth driving in.
After a complete resurfacing project in 2007 and a tweak to the banking in the turns last summer, Kenseth will likely find himself edging his Toyota up next to the outside wall by the time Sunday’s race reaches its final stages.
“The track tends to change a little bit during the race and the groove ends up being up there,” Kenseth said. “Cars that can roll fast through the center on the bottom can still sort of still get off the corner. It’s a different racetrack than before they reconfigured it. You can still pass, but it’s hard to finish the pass.”
Through all the changes, Bristol still provides some of the same challenges it always has. In a season of transition, Kenseth is hoping he can make the adjustments necessary to meet them one more time.