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Can new crew chief deliver old results for Kenseth?

By admin | February 20, 2010

By Richard Allen

Last season could not have begun any better for Matt Kenseth and it could not have ended much worse.

The driver of the Roush Fenway Racing #17 won the prestigious Daytona 500 then followed it with a second consecutive victory the next week in Fontana, California. But after that, there was little to cheer about for this perennial championship contender.

Kenseth failed to qualify for the Chase for the Championship for the first time since the playoff’s inception in 2004. As the season spiraled downward, the relationship between the driver and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer seemed to spiral downward as well.

Listening to in-race conversation between the two showed an apparent lack of chemistry. Frequent disagreements over car setups and race strategy were aired out over the team radios on a weekly basis. At times, it was obvious that each had a mindset as to how they wanted to go about their business and lacked patience with the other.

Blickensderfer had been promoted to the crew chief position of the #17 Ford after Kenseth experienced a less than spectacular 2008 season under first year crew chief Chip Bolin. Blickensderfer had come from the RFR Nationwide Series program where he had led Kenseth and Carl Edwards to numerous victories. He was considered to be a rising star among the crew chiefs in the NASCAR garage.

Rising star or not, Blickensderfer was replaced as the #17 pit boss this past week.

In a Friday press conference at the Auto Club Speedway team owner Jack Roush admitted that the team’s chemistry was not where it should have been and that was the reason for making the change so early in the season. He also expressed his belief that Blickensderfer was a qualified crew chief who would be back in the Sprint Cup ranks at some point.

For his part, Kenseth said on Friday that his team was used to being led by an experienced person with a strong personality. He also confessed that he himself is not that leader type personality and that is why a strong crew chief is necessary for his crew.

Kenseth accepted some of the blame for the timing of the change. He said that Roush had asked him in November if something needed to be done and he had said no at the time. However, he realized after SpeedWeeks that the #17 team could not win races and championships as they were so something had to be done, even after an 8th place finish in the sport‘s biggest event.

Blickensderfer will be replaced atop the #17 pit box by long time NASCAR crew chief Todd Parrott, at least temporarily.  Former Kenseth pit boss and current RFR General Manager Robbie Reiser will join Parrott in the pits at Fontana in a move Roush describes as, “All hands on deck.”

After the two initial wins of the 2009 season, Kenseth scored only five more top-5s and ten more top-10s. Those numbers are off of the 2003 champion’s past averages.

Needless to say, Kenseth and Roush are hopeful of better results in the form of wins and championship contention in 2010 and they have taken an unexpected and aggressive step to make that happen.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly columns appear in The Mountain Press and The Knoxville Journal.

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