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Friday, August 16, 2013
Can Matt Kenseth recapture the magic?


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Matt Kenseth speaks into the phone in a deep bass voice that sounds more like Barry White than a Sprint Cup driver from Wisconsin.

"Hello, Dave," Kenseth says. "Do I sound like Adam?"

Adam is the public relations representative working with Kenseth to promote Gatorade's Beat the Heat program. The 2003 Cup champion is having fun at Adam's expense, so I play along and tell him he sounds more like one of the "famous" Gatorade athletes -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth has four wins in 2013, but he hasn't been to Victory Lane since June 29 at Kentucky.

"Wait a minute," Kenseth says, the pitch in his voice almost back to its normal level. "I'm more famous than he is. He's trying to be like me."

Kenseth pauses for a second to speak to Adam.

"Don't worry," he tells Adam. "It's OK."

He returns to me.

"I'm getting a real funny look right now because he thinks … I'm not doing a serious interview," he says.

Kenseth still has his sense of humor, as dry as it is.

What the Joe Gibbs Racing driver doesn't have is the dominating performances he had earlier in the season that had many considering him the favorite to win the championship.

He's finished 22nd and 23rd the past two weeks, leading only one lap. His average finish the past 10 races is 18.3. During that span he has one win and one pole and has led only 102 laps.

I say only 102 laps because during the first 12 races Kenseth led 893 laps, including 574 during an amazing five-race stretch between Kansas and Charlotte. He had three wins during that time -- which easily could have been five -- and two poles, equaling the number he had the past four years combined.

Take away the Daytona 500, where an engine failure ended Kenseth's day after he led 86 laps, and Bristol, where a crash ruined his day after he led 85 laps, and his average finish in the other 10 races was 7.2.

Gaudy.

So while most are focused on the nine drivers battling for the final four playoff spots, Kenseth is focused on getting back in position to be a legitimate threat for the title.

"We've had a little bit of a fall lately," he admits. "We need to stay in the top 10, obviously, to get those bonus points in the Chase. They're going to be real important.

"I feel good. We're going to have better cars, better engines, better everything at the end of the year. But we still have to execute and turn those into finishes and into wins. … We need to start now, this weekend."

Michigan International Speedway is a good place to start. Kenseth was sixth there in June. He has two wins and 18 top-10s in 28 starts at the 2-mile track in the Irish Hills.

"I'm not concerned," Kenseth says. "I feel we're going to be strong down the stretch and hopefully have everything where we need it heading into the Chase."

The conversation turns back to the heat, specifically how hot Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on Sunday at Watkins Glen immediately after a wreck triggered by Kenseth, who got into the back of Marcos Ambrose and then the side of Kasey Kahne.

It didn't take a Gatorade to cool Earnhardt off, though. Just a conversation with Kenseth.

"He's all right," Kenseth says. "I didn't know what went on until I went back and watched it all. If you watch the next restart, [Ambrose] had a flat tire in front of me. He got really slow [before the wreck], and I wasn't expecting that and I went to miss him. Kasey was going by me so fast because [Ambrose] was going too slow, and I just clipped him."

Then Earnhardt got into Kahne and … well, it didn't end well for either of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers.

The conversation returns to Gatorade and why the company hasn't made a role-reversal commercial featuring Kenseth with a towel over his head and Cam Newton wearing a racing helmet.

"That's a good idea," Kenseth says.

Apparently, Adam gives another funny look. The interview is over with Kenseth sounding like his old self.

The question is, can he get back to performing like his early-season self?