FONTANA, Calif. — Matt Kenseth goes for his third straight victory in the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway. Still, he’s not sure he should be considered a favorite.
“I never thought we’d win two, so you never really know,” Kenseth said, coming off a 36th-place finish in last weekend’s season-opening Daytona 500.
But the 2003 NASCAR champion certainly hasn’t lost confidence as he approaches Sunday’s race at a track that has treated him well.
In his last five Cup races on the 2-mile California oval, Kenseth has seventh-place finishes in the last three fall events to go with those two wins. He will also go into today’s Nationwide event having won four times and added six other top-10 finishes in 13 starts at the track in what was previously the Busch Series.
With qualifying rained out Friday, Kenseth will start fourth, based on last year’s car-owner points.
“I always feel pretty confident going to California,” Kenseth said. “It’s been one of our better tracks throughout our time in the Nationwide Series and in the Cup series, and it’s one I certainly look forward to.
“It’s just a real big, wide track. You get a lot of speed, especially this new car has less drag, so you really go fast down the straightaways. It’s got some pretty big corners where you can run around the bottom or you can run up high and you’re always kind of searching for a groove, so it’s always a lot of fun.”
Kenseth is also hoping that the return to the track 50 miles east of Los Angeles will help him build some momentum after a crash ended his race early at Daytona.
Kenseth this year is no longer working with longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser, who was promoted last fall to general manager of Roush Fenway. Reiser stayed on as crew chief to the end of 2007. Replacement Chip Bolin, who has worked with Kenseth and Reiser the past 10 years, was given more responsibilities during those events to acclimate him to the new job.
“We got to do a five- or six-race trial last year and everything was good there,” said Kenseth, who finished the season with five straight top-five finishes, including a season-ending victory at Homestead.
“I know Chip is going to do a great job,” Kenseth said. “He’s done a great job so far. He’s been very involved and a big part of the team ever since its inception, so I’m not super worried about that part.
“Certainly the new car is a challenge,” he added, referring to the Car of Tomorrow, which is making its California race debut this week. “But, on the other hand, having one car to work on for the year, instead of two, I think will make it a little easier on the engineering staff and easier on the crew chiefs and everybody else. So I feel pretty good about it.”
The strong finish last year kept spirits on the No. 17 Ford team high over the winter and heading to Daytona.
And it appeared the new pairing might pay off big when Kenseth, who started 28th in the 43-car Daytona field, quickly worked his way into the top 10. He then briefly took the lead just past the halfway point in NASCAR’s biggest event.
Kenseth was still in the top 10 with 40 laps to go when David Ragan slid up the track and the two cars wound up in the wall.
“We had a disappointing finish, but we made some great adjustments on the car,” Kenseth said. “We went from being good to getting it off to figuring out how to fix it and being pretty competitive right before we got wrecked.”
Kenseth’s focus now is regaining momentum.
“You always want to win,” he said. “If you won the week before or you won the year before or whatever it is, you always want to win. That’s the goal.
“Obviously, the longer you go in between wins, the more desperate you feel toward it, or the more you’re worried about ever winning again. ”