Friday, June 13, 2003
Michigan's been good to Jarrett, Kenseth
By Jerry Bonkowski Special to ESPN.com
They both drove to victory last season at Michigan International Raceway en route to eventually finishing right behind each other in the final season standings -- Matt Kenseth in eighth place and Dale Jarrett in ninth.
But heading into Sunday's Sirius Satellite Radio 400 at MIS, the two Ford-powered drivers couldn't be more diametrically different in their overall performance during the first 14 races of the 2003 season.
Kenseth has been perched atop the Winston Cup standings for the last 11 races, taking over the lead at Atlanta. One race before that, he captured his first win of the year at Las Vegas. And, having completed all but one lap thus far in 2003, the Wisconsin native has been the picture of incredible consistency, with 12 of 14 finishes in the top-10 (including six top-5 showings), which leads the circuit.
Jarrett, on the other hand, has had virtually nothing but trouble for much of the 2003 campaign thus far. Sure, he finished 10th in the season opener at Daytona, and then won the second race of the season at Rockingham (N.C.), but it's been all downhill ever since.
All told, he has just three top-10 finishes this season (with only one top-10 showing since his victory), has five DNFs (including four in his last five starts -- the result of three crashes and one blown engine), and is ranked a season-low 27th heading into Sunday's race. To add insult to injury, Jarrett is a distant 800 points behind Kenseth in the standings.
Matt Kenseth has led the Winston Cup standings for the last three months.
Now both drivers return to a track where they have enjoyed some of their greatest racing success. Jarrett is a four-time winner at MIS, including capturing last summer's triumph, which was preceded by winning the pole and finishing runner-up to the triumphant Kenseth in last spring's race. MIS is also where Jarrett won the first Winston Cup race of his career back in 1991 and where he's recorded 18 top-10 finishes. It's no wonder Jarrett considers MIS his favorite racetrack.
As a result, if there was ever a race for Jarrett and the No. 88 Ford to break out of one of the worst slumps of his Winston Cup career, Sunday is the one.
"When fans ask what my favorite track is, I always say Michigan," Jarrett said. "That is where I got my first win, but it's more than that. Michigan is a real wide track with multiple racing grooves, and there is plenty room for passing. That really suits my driving style and Robert Yates Racing because of the long straights that require a lot of horsepower. Michigan requires a combination of horsepower and aerodynamics. It's a place where you can compete for the win whether you start first or 43rd if you have a good handling race car.
"We've had a rough couple weeks with the engine in Dover and the cut tire that put us out of the race last week at Pocono. So, I'd definitely say we're looking forward to getting back to Michigan -- a place where we've won before and know how to prepare a car well for."
Kenseth, meanwhile, has been sparkling at MIS while driving the No. 17 Ford. In seven career starts, he has three top-10 finishes, including last year's win, and has never finished lower than 17th. If there was ever a race for Kenseth to not only win his second event of the year and put a substantial distance between himself and the other 40-plus drivers chasing him in the standings -- he currently holds a 176-point edge over his closest challenger, Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- it's also Sunday for him.
And with the headquarters of Roush Industries, parent company of the same Roush Racing team that employs Kenseth, less than 60 miles away from MIS, it's significant for Kenseth to do well in front of the boss (Jack Roush) and his co-workers who will be in attendance.
"Statistically speaking, this might be our best track over time; we've always run real well at Michigan," Kenseth said. "For Roush Racing, this is like a homecoming for the whole organization. We always want to do well. We're looking to win again this year to add to our Vegas victory, and this might be the place. This track is just such a fun place to race. It's so wide and there are multiple grooves. I'm really looking forward to it."
That's why Kenseth's crew chief, Robbie Reiser, isn't leaving anything to chance. He's heading to MIS on Sunday with the same mindset as his driver: to leave with a win.
"I don't think it should come as a surprise that we're bringing the same car we won with (at MIS) last year," Reiser said. "That was a great day for this team, and we want to make it another great day come Sunday. We have to keep doing things well as a team. Last week was a great example. We overcame some early difficulties in the pits that really got us behind, and we still came out of there with a top-five finish (finished third at Pocono). I'm real proud of my guys for that."
Jarrett, who will receive the prestigious Fatherhood Award from the National Fatherhood Initiative before Sunday's race for the example he sets as a dedicated family man, couldn't ask for a better Father's Day present than to come to his favorite racetrack and finally break out of his horrendous slump of late with a win or strong finish.
"The race at Michigan is always a very competitive race, and I don't see that really changing this time around," Jarrett said. "It is one of the places where you won't necessarily run side-by-side through the corners, but you may have a guy running the top groove and another guy that's running the bottom through the turns and the air won't necessarily affect them that much. They can be side-by-side with a lot of room in between them, but then get really side-by-side down the straightaway. It's just a fantastic track for real competitive racing."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@Yahoo.com.