blank 10/07/09 03:30PM Matt Kenseth, NASCAR, Racing, The Chase

Optimism turns to frustration for NASCAR'S Matt Kenseth
By Jim Peltz

Despite winning the first two events in the Sprint Cup Series, the former champion driver didn't even qualify for this year's playoff. He hopes to rebound in Sunday's Pepsi 500 at Fontana.


Matt Kenseth,NASCAR


Matt Kenseth is known in the NASCAR garage for his quick, dry wit. And if anyone has needed a sense of humor this season, it's Kenseth.

After winning the first two races on the Sprint Cup Series calendar -- the prestigious Daytona 500 and the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana -- Kenseth left Southern California riding a wave of optimism.

But that was the last time he tasted victory, and now he returns to Fontana having endured what he calls "probably one of the most frustrating years of my career."

Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR Cup champion, hopes to rebound at the two-mile speedway where the Pepsi 500, the fourth race in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship playoff, is scheduled to start Sunday at noon.

Despite his terrific start, the 37-year-old Wisconsin native, who drives for Roush Fenway Racing, failed to qualify for the 12-driver Chase.

So he's spending the year's last several races trying to figure out why his No. 17 Ford simply stopped being competitive before the season was half over.

"Maybe this will be the weekend we start getting things turned around," Kenseth, who also won the Auto Club 500 in 2006 and 2007, said during a recent visit to Fontana. "I really don't know" what's wrong, and "if I knew exactly I'd fix it. . . . This year for whatever reason -- somewhere close to or after Texas [in April] -- our stuff just quit running. I don't know why."

Indeed, all of Roush Fenway's five drivers have struggled to keep up with Hendrick Motorsports and some other teams this year, although Kenseth teammates Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards did make the Chase.

"We're still working on all aspects of the cars, but we've just been behind," Kenseth said. "We don't know how to get our cars to run fast . . . or how to adjust them during the race."

Last week's race at Kansas Speedway was typical of Kenseth's season.

He qualified a mediocre 23rd and, after 134 of the race's 267 laps, his Ford suffered engine failure, leaving him with a 39th-place finish and 14th in the Cup series standings. "It's disappointing, we had a really good run going," he said.

TV times

Responding to lower television ratings and fans' complaints about uneven start times for Cup races, NASCAR said it's returning to earlier, more uniform start times next year.

NASCAR said start times for 20 of its 36 races would be moved back to 1 p.m. Eastern Time (10 a.m. Pacific), while the two races at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana would begin at 3 p.m. Eastern, or noon local time. Night races on the Cup schedule mostly would start at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

"We are making the change for our fans, beginning with the Daytona 500 next February," which will start at 1 p.m. Eastern, or 2Ĺ hours earlier than this year, NASCAR Chairman Brian France said. It would be the earliest start for NASCAR's season opener since 2003.

Pepsi 500 notes

Actors Christian Slater and Kelsey Grammer will help start Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway, with Slater driving the pace car and Grammer, the race's grand marshal, giving the command for drivers to start their engines. . . . Cup driver David Gilliland of Riverside is scheduled to race a late-model stock car Saturday night at Orange Show Speedway, a quarter-mile oval in San Bernardino.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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