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Associated Press Matt Kenseth, center, waits his turn for a qualification run for the O'Reilly 300 NASCAR Busch Series race Thursday, April 4, 2002, at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. Kenseth earned the fifth spot with a time of 191.843 mph.

Knight Ridder News

This is where Matt Kenseth wanted to be, threatening for a victory almost every Sunday and piling up strong finishes in the races that couldn't be won.

No, he didn't just want, he expected.

For a while, when he was a rookie, leading lap after lap and finishing first, second and third, Kenseth even wondered if this whole business might not be easier than he'd imagined. That notion seems sort of silly now.

But after 36-race reality check that served as his sophomore season and, really, a year and a half of frustration, introspection and redirection, Kenseth is back where he wanted to be.

Early in his third full season with Roush Racing and his third in stock car racing's big league, Kenseth has won once and raced competitively in four of the other five events. After finishing 32nd, the victim of a crash, in the season-opening Daytona 500, he has pulled into second place in the standings, within 99 points of Winston Cup leader Sterling Marlin.

"If it was October right now and I saw we were second in the standings, well, then I'd be more excited about it," Kenseth said this week from the Roush shop in Concord, N.C.

"But I do feel good about where we are right now and how we've been performing and our consistency. If we can keep that up all year, then the points will take care of themselves and we'll be right up there."

That's something Kenseth could not say last season.

After a promising 2000 campaign in which he won the Coca-Cola 600, finished 13th in the standings and earned the title of rookie of the year, Kenseth and his team failed to show the progress they'd expected. The driver from Cambridge, Wis., finished fourth four times, but on most race days through much of the year, his Ford Taurus could be located somewhere around 20th or 30th place.

Compounding the problem was the fact that neither Kenseth nor crew chief Robbie Reiser could figure out exactly why. The other three Roush teams were struggling, as well, so they weren't much help.

"We won that race so early in our rookie year I felt like then we were ready to contend for races," Kenseth said. "Then everything kind of went south on us in a hurry.

"We just started running bad and losing the setup or for whatever reason we just started performing bad, and it took a year and a half to get back to victory lane, and now we're running about how we were running the middle of our rookie year."Finding blame Part of the blame for Kenseth's sophomore slump could be placed on a new design of the Goodyear tire and some NASCAR rules changes that combined to make obsolete the spring and shock absorber combinations favored by many drivers.

Another factor, according to Reiser, was building frustration within the young team. The crew knew its potential and stumbled into panic mode in an effort to reach its own lofty expectations.

Reiser points to a team meeting last August as a turning point in attitude and, consequently, performance.

"Everybody was … trying to find the easy fix," Reiser said. "We were trying to do too much, trying too hard to change this thing around, and we weren't taking a direction.

"It was a whole group that said, 'We've got to sit down and talk about this.' We discussed a few things, changed our approach a little on how we went to the racetrack and how we approached practice. And slowly, slowly as the year progressed, we got better."

In fact, in the final six races, Kenseth racked up four top-10 finishes, with three of them matching his season high of fourth. The conclusion to 2001 offered hope for a better 2002.Lessons learned "Well, nothing good ever comes out of running bad, but it did teach me a couple lessons," Kenseth said. "It taught me how hard the Winston Cup Series really is and not to underestimate how hard it is and how easy it is to lose how good your performance is."

Now, though, building on the lessons of last season and with a better feel for the setups that will make his car consistently quick, Kenseth is performing as well as ever.

The level of the cooperation among Kenseth, teammates Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin and their crews is at an all-time high. So is team morale after Kenseth's victory in Rockingham, N.C., and Busch's in Bristol, Tenn.

"I don't think I'm any better of a driver than I was last year or the year before," said Kenseth, who reached a personal best of sixth in the points after Atlanta, improved to third after Darlington and second after Bristol.

"When you're in good cars with good engines and can get them to handle the way they need to handle, and you have the pit stops that you need to have, you can put yourself in the position to win races. But if you're in 20th-place equipment, you're not going to win races with that."Moving on? Even as Kenseth did little to distinguish himself in the early part of last season, he still became the subject of midseason rumors, and he's likely to be linked to other teams this year. Kenseth, who won't discuss the terms of his contract, downplayed the level of distraction created by the "silly season" and said he planned on staying with Roush.

If Kenseth continues to contend for victories throughout the year, perhaps the focus will remain on his performance rather than rumors. Right now, he's busy chasing Marlin - the series' hottest driver with two victories already - and has rookie Ryan Newman, veteran Rusty Wallace and his own teammates in pursuit.

Further clouding the title picture one-sixth of the way through a long season are the slow starts encountered by past champions Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett and frequent contenders Ricky Rudd and Tony Stewart.

But, as Kenseth says, enjoy the view from the top, but don't get too excited or worry too much about what anyone else is doing just yet.

"There have been some teams that in the past have been up there in the point standings that aren't up there right now, and they could get it turned around," Kenseth said. "But if we can keep doing the things we're doing right, we'll have a chance to be up there fighting with them."

Where he expected to be.

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