A YEAR later Kenseth trying to get back to winner's circle

Thursday, May 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) _ Matt Kenseth thought he reached the top of Winston Cup racing when he won the Coca-Cola 600 last year. He's found out he's a long way from racing for championships.

``It's funny, because you remember everything it took to get that first win, and then you think you've finally achieved your goal, but really the goal had just begun,'' Kenseth said. ``Just because you're used to winning doesn't mean you're always going to. It takes a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.''

Kenseth, from Cambridge, Wis., got his first and only taste of Winston Cup victory when he won the 600 last May.

Back at Lowe's Motor Speedway to defend his title in Sunday's race, Kenseth is searching for the chemistry and luck that helped him win NASCAR's longest race. Kenseth has failed to make his way back to the winner's circle since his 600 win.

``I'm proud of that win, it was a breakthrough for us,'' he said. ``But it's been hard since then. It's hard, because you want so badly to win again.''

This year has been a struggle for Kenseth, with only two top 10 finishes. And he hasn't been nearly as consistent as a year ago, when he used a string of solid finishes to edge Dale Earnhardt Jr. for rookie of the year.

``We haven't been very happy,'' Kenseth said. ``Not everything has gone as well as we hoped it would go and hopefully here in Charlotte we will be able to turn it around.''

Despite his troubles, he's 11th in the points standings and ahead of all three of his Roush Racing teammates, including preseason favorites Mark Martin and Jeff Burton.

Martin, long Kenseth's mentor who recommended him when team owner Jack Roush was looking for another driver, said Kenseth's hard work and determination have helped him weather Roush's recent struggles.

``He doesn't quit,'' Martin said. ``When things get tough, he just digs down deeper and stays at the shop later.''

Kenseth, who toiled in the Busch Series for three seasons before his promotion to Winston Cup, said he knew going in what would be required on the next level.

``I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work to make it at NASCAR's most competitive level,'' Kenseth said. ``But I knew I was ready to put that time in. It's so tough in Winston Cup racing these days that if you're even a little bit off, you aren't going to be competitive. Everything has to be perfect to win these races.''

Kenseth was close to perfect a year ago, keeping pace with the leaders for the first 500 miles, then benefitting from a tire-pressure adjustment on the last pit stop to pass Bobby Labonte on lap 375.

He held on the rest of the way, becoming the first rookie to win the race.

``I remember thinking it would be a good day,'' Kenseth said. ``I just had a hunch that the hard work everybody put in was about to pay off.''