There was a time when Matt Kenseth cared not so much for the series' four restrictor-plate races.
"I used to dread it," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said April 30 during a NASCAR Cam teleconference.
And then he swept through last year's four stops -- two apiece at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway -- with a success rate that has rarely been seen on the big tracks. Two wins and a pair of third-place finishes gave Kenseth an average finish of 2.0 on the tracks where speed is king and the brake pedal is an afterthought.
"Yeah, that was a pretty gaudy number," Kenseth admitted. "I don't think we'll ever be able to do that again. It's the same approach, you show up at the track, you go through to lead laps, put yourself in position to win."
Of course, it's just as likely that a driver will be swept up in one of the multicar crashes that regularly occur. While drivers don't often consider the potential for such trouble at other venues, Talladega is the exception.
The finish of last fall's race was typical. Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, was celebrating in victory lane while workers were likely still removing the final remnants of a 25-car incident that occurred on the last lap.
"I think whenever you go to ? a restrictor-plate race, certainly being in a wreck is more on your mind than any other race track; you're going faster, (in) big packs," he said.
"Ever since I started racing, or even really started watching NASCAR racing, that's the way it's been. The first thing you think of when you think of Talladega and you want to be honest, you think of a wreck. As a fan or driver or whatever, that's usually what comes to your mind ? big packs of cars and big wrecks."
Already twice a winner this season, Kenseth heads into the April 5 Aaron's 499 racing under a bit of a cloud -- his Kansas win was overshadowed by a hefty penalty when his car's engine failed inspection.
The subsequent 50-point penalty dropped him to 14th in points, and although he improved to 13th with a top-10 finish last weekend at Richmond, Kenseth hopes a May 8 appeal of the severity of the punishment will be successful.
Regardless of the outcome, it appears Kenseth and his No. 20 team, led by crew chief Jason Ratcliff, will continue to be contenders on the track. He'll be going for his third consecutive pole this weekend, has led multiple laps in seven of the nine races and has five top-10 finishes.
"I can tell you that I have a ton of confidence in my race team," he said. "These guys are really, really good ? our performance has been nothing short of spectacular all year."
He led 86 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 and was out front when engine troubles struck just shy of the lap-150 mark. He also suffered a DNF at Bristol while running second when leader Jeff Gordon crashed in front of him on lap 390 of the 500-lap race.
"Although we don't have all the finishes to show for it, I'm real thankful to have two wins," Kenseth said. "We had a couple races where everything worked out all right. I feel really good with where we are at today, still obviously trying to move forward, get the cars faster, me do a better job on track, all that stuff.
"I certainly feel good about where we are from a performance standpoint only being here nine races into the year, and hopefully we can keep that moving forward."
? If Kenseth was the standout on restrictor-plate tracks last year, Jimmie Johnson was on the opposite end of the spectrum. The five-time Cup champion had a best finish of 17th in plate races and failed to finish three of the four.
The good news for Johnson? He snapped the run of misfortune with a victory in this year's Daytona 500.
The bad news? The race-winning car will be on display in Daytona until next year, and thus unavailable for further use.
"We would like to (use our Daytona car), but we usually don't have that ability," crew chief Knaus said earlier this year. "We usually crash, so we were prepared to do something else."
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