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Thursday, July 9, 2009
Kenseth looks to become king of Chicago track

By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPNChicago.com

Even though he earned over $1.5 million for winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Matt Kenseth now has an additional bit of incentive to win Saturday's LifeLock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway: He's got a new mouth to feed.

Matt and wife Katy, both natives of nearby Cambridge, Wis. (just north of Madison), welcomed their first child together on Monday with the birth of daughter Kaylin Nicola. Kenseth has another child, a son, from a previous relationship.

Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth sees Chicagoland Speedway as his home track.

"Baby needs a new pair of shoes," Matt can be imagined saying as he attempts to finally break through for a win on the 1.5-mile track that has played host to NASCAR and the Sprint Cup Series since it opened in 2001.

Kenseth considers Chicagoland Speedway his home track, since it's the closest facility to Cambridge -- a quaint little country junction of only 1,200 residents -- that hosts a Sprint Cup event. And while he's enjoyed considerable success there, he is still looking for his first win at "home."

"It's as close as I get to a home game, being that's it's only a few hours from where I grew up," Kenseth said. "I always see a lot of family and friends down here, guys I used to race with and their kids, or guys that used to work on my team.

"I feel like there's a lot that goes on and lines up around us that makes the race a little more exciting, a little bit of home game type of feel."

Kenseth, who won the Sprint Cup championship in 2003, has been particularly strong in the last four races at Chicagoland, finishing as a runner-up in 2005 and 2007, and seventh last year.

He had perhaps his best chance to win in 2006, leading for 112 laps, until Jeff Gordon ran into the rear of Kenseth's car with two laps to go, causing a wreck that left Kenseth with a disappointing 22nd-place finish -- while Gordon went on to win.

"There's been a couple years when we had the field covered pretty good," Kenseth said. "The one year we got beat [2005], we decided to get four tires with 20 [laps] to go, and three or four cars got two tires and we couldn't get back around then. That one was real disappointing. Then there was the one when Jeff spun us out and had a real bad finish there.

"But we've had some real good runs here. We just haven't been able to get to victory lane and just can't get everything to go exactly right. Hopefully, we'll have a shot at it and put ourself in a position to win. If you're able to do that, you should be able to win sooner or later."

After winning the first two races of the season, Kenseth, 37, has struggled of late. Following his fourth-place finish at Dover, Del., six weeks ago, he recorded finishes of 16th, 20th, 18th and 22nd before getting his ship turned around in the right direction with an eighth-place finish on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.

He comes into Saturday night's race, the 19th event on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule, 10th in the standings. The top 12 drivers after the first 26 races make the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff, and Kenseth is bound and determined to be there once again.

In fact, Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, who has won the last three Cup titles, are the only drivers in the series to make the Chase every year since its inception in 2004.

This weekend's event marks the second year in a row that Chicago's stop on the Sprint Cup Series has been a Saturday night race (the first seven editions were Sunday afternoon events).

Since Kenseth grew up racing primarily in Wisconsin and Illinois on Friday and Saturday nights, it gives him somewhat of a flashback to how things were when he was starting out on what would be his eventual way to NASCAR stardom.

"I like Saturday night racing," Kenseth said. "For the fans, it's better, gives them another day to travel home. Most people that come to a race would like the atmosphere of a Saturday night race maybe better than a Sunday race.

"You can tailgate, show up a little bit later, have some fun, the cars look faster at night, and you can see the sparks and action a little bit better. I think Saturday night races are fun and exciting."

For only the second time in Chicagoland Speedway's run on the NASCAR circuit will the event not be sold out. The main reason, like with other tracks that have seen numerous empty seats this season, is the economy, which troubles Kenseth.

"It's a little scary to see the grandstands and some of the cutbacks and just the general economy," Kenseth said. "So many people are out of jobs or are losing their homes or can't feed their kids. That's really more my concern. What we do is really secondary. Our problems are small right now compared to a lot of problems right now who can't get a job or are getting laid off. Hopefully, it turns around soon."

Even though he was born and raised in a small town, Kenseth is no stranger to Chicago, having visited the Windy City numerous times. His favorite memories are attending several Blackhawks games (particularly at the old Chicago Stadium), several Cubs games at Wrigley Field, and standing on the sidelines at Soldier Field, wearing the uniform of and cheering on his beloved...

PACKERS!

What? A Packer Backer in the middle of Bears country? We can't have that, can we?

So, Matt, what do you really think about the Bears?

"I can't say that, you know how much trouble I'll get in?" Kenseth said with a big laugh. "If I did that, I wouldn't have a fan out there."

But, he quickly adds, almost trying to save face, "You know what, I'm watching Bears games if I'm not watching Packers games."

A self-proclaimed "big NFL fan," Kenseth is a student of the game. He possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, almost as much as he knows about racing.

Even though he still bleeds green and gold, he is positive about the Bears' acquisition of Jay Cutler.

"To me, it seems like they did it a year or two too late, but I think it's about time they did it," Kenseth said. "The year they lost the Super Bowl, they still had everything in place and didn't lose many people.

"All they needed was a good quarterback. They could have picked up Jeff Garcia, who was a free agent, and he could have fit in there right away."

Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.