Matt Kenseth comes to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend with pocket aces and a giant stack of chips.
Kenseth has started the 2009 Sprint Cup season as well as he could have, ringing up victories in the Daytona 500 and in the Auto Club 500 at Fontana, Calif.
Now he brings that momentum into Sunday's Shelby 427 at a track where Kenseth has enjoyed a run of racing good fortune. Kenseth won here in 2003 and 2004, back before this 1.5-mile track was given additional banking. He finished eighth and second the next two years on the old configuration, then was fourth on the new track in 2007.
Last year Kenseth was up front until he got caught up in a late-race wreck that took out Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet and dropped Kenseth to a 20th-place finish.
Gordon finished third after he won the first two races in 1997, as did Marvin Panch back in 1957. Kenseth could make history by flopping a third ace this weekend at a track where he's led 438 laps in his career, more than any other driver.
“It takes three things to make these cars win,” said Jack Roush, Kenseth's car owner. “It takes technology that the manufacturer brings to the table. … It takes NASCAR giving you a template set for the body shape and engine parameters that are competitive. And it takes a driver who can close the deal.”
Kenseth closed out last week's victory by holding a determined Jeff Gordon after crew chief Drew Blickensderfer's guys gave their car the lead on the final pit stop.
Kenseth would add another element to Roush's formula for success, and that would be the way Blickensderfer has taken to his new role after moving up from the Roush Fenway Racing program in the Nationwide Series.
Kenseth said he felt good right away after Roush moved Blickensderfer into that job and slid Chip Bolin, Kenseth's crew chief during a winless 2008 season, back to his former role as the team's lead engineer.
“A week later, I had a long talk with Chip and everything was cool with Jack,” Kenseth said. “We worked everything out, I just had a really good feeling about it. I don't know why. I was more confident coming into this year than I've been in a lot of seasons.
“I just feel great about the group we have assembled. Everybody's having fun. Everybody's loose. Everybody's performing. I think Drew has given them the leadership and the spark they kind of need, and Chip has time to work on the cars and keep up with engineering and the data. They've been able to work great together so far.”
Roush said Kenseth also is doing some of the things that have helped Kenseth join Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers to make every Chase for the Sprint Cup, the 10-race championship playoff that began the year after Kenseth won his championship in 2003.
“One of the things about Matt Kenseth is he doesn't practice as well as a lot of people do,” Roush said. “He goes looking for the feel he likes in the car, and tries to save the car so he doesn't put extra wear and tear on it.
“David Pearson was before my time, but when I first got involved, I was around the Wood Brothers, Leonard and Glen, they would talk about how with David they could never know how much car they had until it was time in the race. Matt is a little like that.”
Roush said Blickensderfer has also brought a spark – Roush called it “magic” – to the team.
Blickensderfer took part in several sports growing up, including wrestling, and said several coaches – among them his father – helped him develop those skills.
“There's a time to kick somebody in the butt, and there's a time to put an arm around them,” Blickensderfer said. “Each personality is different. After a bad pit stop or a mistake in the garage when you're changing a sway bar, there are certain people who can relate if you get in their face and yell at them like a football coach. There are certain people you need to put your arm around, take them next to the trailer and say, ‘It's OK.'
“I think I've been blessed to have my father and a lot of other great coaches in my life that taught me when to cross the line, when not to cross the line and how to deal with people.”