Friday, August 12, 2011

Flashback Friday - From the Archives

20 with 17
By, Doug Russell

What makes Wisconsin’s favorite son on the Sprint Cup Series tick? Why were there so many crew chief changes last year? Does he really have a cat named after Miley Cyrus? Recently, Kenseth sat down with Inside Wisconsin Sports’ Doug Russell.

Cambridge native Matt Kenseth enters the 2011 season as one of the favorites to unseat five-time defending Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson. Kenseth’s racing blood runs deep, having learned at the feet of his father, Roy Kenseth, on the Wisconsin and Northern Illinois circuit. Matt’s 17-year old son, Ross, has embarked on his own racing career as well. Currently, Matt and his wife Katie live in Mooresville, N.C. with their daughter Kaylin, 1.

1. How would you characterize your 2010 season?

MK: It was interesting for sure. We had some downs, for sure, but we also had some ups. We finished on a strong note. We still finished fifth in the points standings even though we had three different crew chiefs during the year. Even with all of the changes, I thought that was a great, great, strong finish for us.

2. What caused you to go through so many crew chiefs, from Drew Blickensderfer, to Todd Parrott, then finally to Jimmy Fennig?

MK: It’s kind of hard to explain. I wish Drew really well. Drew will be a winning and probably a champion crew chief at the Cup level. Todd has obviously won championships, and so has Jimmy. They’re all great guys, but it was all about just getting that mix right, getting to be able to work with everybody, and getting to the finish line. Success, at the end of the day, is what it’s really all about. You have to have the performance, you have to have the finishes, and the team has to be able to work together as one. It’s not always just about the driver and the crew chief versus the driver or the crew chief. It’s about getting that whole group to work well together.

3. But it seems as though there has been a lot of turmoil on your crew since Robbie Reiser moved upstairs into the front office?

MK: Yeah, I’ll go ahead and take the blame for everything going wrong, but it’s never all exactly one person. I’m still really good friends with Drew (Blickensderfer), I still feel like I’m really good friends with Todd (Parrott), and I’ve got a ton of respect for him, and I hope he still has a lot of respect for me. Actually, everything went really well there, it’s just hard to explain unless you were in there. But yeah, since Robbie left it certainly has been different. Chip (Bolin) took over the first year, and he did a really good job. Chip didn’t really want to do it, but I kind of forced him to do it. He’s not necessarily the people person and organizer, he’s more of the engineer and the guy who ‘tries to make the cars go fast’ guy. He really doesn’t care about the rest of that other stuff, and I put him in a position where he did, which is probably my fault. Since then, we had a lot of great things going on with Drew, I think Todd brought a lot to the team, and I think Jimmy brings a lot to the team.

4. It seems as though things have settled down with (Milwaukee native) Jimmy Fennig in the pit box. How did your relationship with him evolve?

MK: I’ve known Jimmy for a long time. Mark Martin was the one who got me started with Roush Racing in 1997, and Jimmy was Mark’s crew chief at the time. I used to hang out around the garage a lot and ask a lot of questions. I used to go out to the track with them and test Mark’s car when they would go out to Talladega and places like that. So, I’ve known Jimmy for a long time, he’s been around for a long time, he’s also from Wisconsin, and we have always had a great relationship. It just takes a little while of working together to get things rolling, but I feel really good about it. Jimmy is a really talented crew chief. There’s no one in the garage that’s more of a racer or anyone who works harder than Jimmy does at trying to get results. It’s been good.

5. That having been said, both Jimmy Fennig and Drew Blickensderfer have said you are among the most demanding drivers they have ever worked with. Looking in the mirror, how demanding do you think you are?

MK: (long pause) That’s hard to answer. I guess I’m probably pretty demanding, especially when you look at this season from last year. But, I expect perfection. I know it’s not realistic, but that’s what you’ve got to expect. I expect it of myself. I mean, I haven’t had a perfect race, or a perfect day, or a perfect lap yet, but I still expect that from myself. It’s what I strive for, and it’s the same for the leader of the team, to everyone on the team, to the guy building the car. It’s what you need to expect, it’s what you need to strive for. You expect to try to win races; you expect to try to win championships. I know it’s hard, but that’s what you need to be able to expect. I’ve been so fortunate in my career to work with some really great people. Robbie always demanded that out of all of his people, and so has everyone else that I’ve ever worked with. I probably am pretty demanding. I’m pretty particular and pretty picky about certain things. I think in some cases that’s been good, and sometimes it’s probably been bad, and I’ve been over the top on a lot of things.

6. Is the run that Jimmie Johnson is on right now, with five consecutive Cup championships, good for the sport?

MK: Oh, I don’t know. I guess it depends on who you are and how you look at things. Certainly I think most fans are ready to see someone else win it. As drivers, we all would like to win it. But, if I don’t win it, it doesn’t really matter who does, you’re trying to win it for your team and your organization. One thing I will say is that everyone who is watching the sport right now is witnessing history, and will someday look back and say ‘wow, remember when Jimmie won five in a row?’ Or at least five in a row, because who knows how many he can win? No one has ever come close to five in a row before, and I can’t imagine anyone ever doing it ever again in the history of the sport. That’s something that’s pretty special that everyone is getting to witness.

7. Do you feel that his accomplishment goes underappreciated outside of NASCAR?

MK: I really do, and I don’t know why that is. I even feel like its underappreciated within our sport, and I don’t know why that is. You know what, though, if I were Jimmie and I had those five trophies sitting at home, I really wouldn’t care what anybody thought about it. (laughs) I can think of a ton of other drivers that if they would’ve won two or three straight, much less five, that people would be doing back flips about it, but with Jimmie they don’t really say a lot about it. It seems kind of weird, and I don’t know why that is.

8.  Three great seasons of yours stand out. In 2002, when you had a career-high five wins; 2003, when you won the Cup Championship; and 2006, when you came in second in overall points, won over $9.5 million, and had four wins. Of those three seasons, which was the most satisfying to you?

MK: Winning the championship in 2003, for sure. The ultimate goal is to win a championship every year, so 2003 was our best season ever. We just had an unbelievable year.  We were able to win just one race that year, but we were in a position to win, gosh, just about every week. It just was one of those years where just about every week were running in the top ten, and most weeks even in the top five.

9. What made that year so successful?

MK: We just had an unbelievable year on pit road, with car preparation, and on the racetrack executing the races. It was probably a better season than even the numbers show. I mean, we tried an experimental motor the last race of the year and it blew up, and we had some problems here and there that took us out of a few finishes, but other than that we just had an unbelievably good season.

10. After that season, however, critics of the points system, including Roger Penske, pointed you out as a reason the system was flawed; winning the championship despite only one victory. Some even used the phrase, the “Matt Kenseth Rule” to describe the new points formula. Do you think that affected you negatively at all?

MK: You know, I don’t think so. I think it all depends on how you look at it. I mean, if they’re changing the whole system around because of how well we did, I think that’s a pretty high compliment. I don’t think you can be complimented much more than that, but I don’t think they changed it all because of me, either. I don’t look at it as a negative at all.

11. How much has NASCAR evolved since you began driving on the circuit in the late 1990’s?

MK: Oh man, I’ve see it change a lot already. I think I’ve been there 10 full seasons, maybe 11. I’m thankful I got in at the time I did. I got in at the ‘boom’ for sure, right when the popularity was exploding. The cars are a lot safer, the Chase for the Cup…gosh, there have been so many things that have happened. I’ve seen a lot of cool things. I’ve seen a lot of changes, and I’ve been really blessed to be a part of it. 

12. Would Danica Patrick be successful if she were to switch from Indy cars to NASCAR?

MK: There’s been a lot of success there as far as marketing, commercials, and sponsorships, and in getting more people to watch the races. There hasn’t been that much success on the track yet, but it seems like there has been a constant improvement. She seemed to do a little better at the end of last year. Would she succeed in NASCAR? I don’t know, but she has a better opportunity than most people would have because of being a girl, and because of a lot of the other things she’s got going on. Obviously there is a great opportunity for her, and I’m sure she’ll get as much time as she wants to try to make it work. It’s hard though. It’s a lot different driving one of our cars than an Indy car. Plus, driving a part-time schedule, going back and forth can’t be easy, but it does seem that she keeps getting better.

13. Your daughter, Kaylin, is a year and half old. Would you encourage her to be a race car driver?

MK: Absolutely not! (laughs) I’ll leave that to Ross. 

14. Speaking of Ross, there are 16 years in between he and Kaylin. How did Ross take to becoming a big brother for the first time a lot later than most kids?

MK: Oh, he likes it. Ross has always loved kids, so I don’t think it’s been that big of an adjustment for him. He’s 17, he’s almost a man, he’s getting ready to graduate from high school, which just blows me away how fast the time goes by. Like I said, though, he’s always loved kids and they love him, so it’s been good.

15. How did becoming a father at such an early age (21) affect you?

MK: Oh, I don’t know I ever thought about it that much. I think your maturity level changes when you have kids. Obviously you mature as you get older, that goes with everything, not just having kids. 

16. How much of Cambridge is still in you?

MK: A lot. You know, one thing about being from Wisconsin is that when you meet people, you find out where they’re from. Instead of ‘hey, I’m Jim’ its ‘hey, I’m Jim and I’m from Wisconsin!’ People are really proud of being from Wisconsin and can’t wait to tell you. I still get up there a fair amount, Katie is from the same hometown, and her family still lives up there. No matter how long we live somewhere else, we always feel like we are from Wisconsin, that’s for sure. 

17. Favre or Rodgers?

MK: Rodgers. (indignantly) Rodgers. 
18. Do you ever take a vacation away from the garage in the off season?

MK: We don’t have any formal vacations planned this year. We’re pretty much just laying low this winter. We went back to Wisconsin for the holidays and caught up with family. We went snowmobiling and sledding, just laying low and staying pretty close to home.

19. You and your wife have four cats; they’ve been featured in NASCAR pet calendars with the proceeds going to support animal shelters and various humane societies. I have to ask you about their names. As I understand it, one is named Lars, for Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. Another is named Miley. Um, that’s quite diverse if that reflects your musical tastes.

MK: (laughs) Oh, I don’t know that any of them are named after anyone. It just so happened that when I was brining Lars home, a Metallica song was on the radio, so I was joking around saying we should name him Lars. Katie said she loved the name and it stuck. Katie named the kittens. Sulley and Miley. (chuckles) I think they’re just names.

20. Finally, how much thought have you given to your post-driving career?

MK: Not very much. I’m hoping that we can have a good year this season and get back on track so I don’t have to worry about it for a while. I don’t spend much time thinking about what’s next, I’m just so focused about being successful today.

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