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Pairing Fennig With Kenseth A Winning Move

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 11 2011

Jack Roush, Matt Kenseth and Jimmy Fennig all had a much-needed good weekend in Texas. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Erik J. Perel)

Fort Worth, Texas – There are times when NASCAR team-owner Jack Roush speaks in a language so deep and so precise that only a mechanical engineer truly can digest it.

Ask Jack about the aerodynamic nuances associated with the Ford Fusion’s new Sprint Cup nose, and you’ll likely get an explanation along the lines of E=MC(squared).

And then there are times when Jack, very subtly, can bust chops.

Case in point, Saturday night in the interview theater at Texas Motor Speedway, where Jack joined Samsung Mobile 500 race-winner Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig behind microphones on the big stage. Kenseth had just snapped a 76-race winless streak stretching back to Feb. 22, 2009 via a dominating performance on the 1.5-mile TMS quadoval.

It was Kenseth’s 19th career Cup win, his first of 2011 and second at TMS, where he also won the rain-delayed spring race in 2002 from back of the field.

“I can’t say how proud I am to be here with Matt, realizing that he’s not gotten the success that his effort has deserved in the recent past,” Roush said of his longest-tenured driver. “Of course, Jimmy Fennig isn’t an instant success story. He’s our oldest crew chief.”

Jack actually asked Fennig how long he had been employed by the organization, with

Jack Roush got the right driver with the right crew chief on his No. 17 team. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

1997 being the correct answer. “Jimmy is the consummate stock-car racer,” Roush said. “He can run your R&D team. He can take your rookie driver (and round-off the rough edges). Heck, he even won a championship with Kurt Busch. He can do anything.”

Now Jack was laughing, recalling the clash of generations that nevertheless resulted in Busch’s improbable Cup championship run in 2004, inaugural year of the Chase format. “That was the biggest job I’ve ever seen done in terms of a driver/crew chief managing a program to get the most out of it,” Roush said. “Kurt was just a rookie at the time. Jimmy has done it all.”

A quick check of the “NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2011 Media Guide” confirmed this suspicion, too – Fennig, who will turn 58 on Sept. 13, is the only Cup crew chief of 32 listed who was born in the 1950s. That defines “old school smarts” in NASCAR’s new age of apps, Dartfish and digitial this-and-that.

His 27 career Cup wins trail the 51 racked-up by Chad Knaus with five-time/reigning champion Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports; the 33 collected by Greg Zipadelli at Joe Gibbs Racing – 32 of them with two-time series champion Tony Stewart – and the 28 compiled by Todd Parrott, who guided Dale Jarrett to a Cup title in 1999 at Robert Yates Racing before logging a 17-race stint with Kenseth at Roush Fenway 10 years later.

Fennig was paired with Kenseth in June of 2010, leading Matt into the Chase and a fifth-place finish in the final standings.

“Jimmy’s only worked for three people,” Roush said. “He worked for Mark Martin early-on. He worked for Bobby Allison and he worked for Roush Fenway. And he’s…Jimmy is one of the guys I look to to give me advice behind and around and above the engineers on what’s right and what’s wrong about our deal.

“Nobody did a better job running an R&D program than Jimmy. And when we went

Jimmy Fennig and Kurt Busch won the championship in 2004. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

through a number of crew chiefs trying to find a combination that would be best for Matt through kind of the dark days when it seemed like we couldn’t get it right, Jimmy was well-burrowed into the R&D thing. He was having a good time. He was taking his race team without fans and without TV and without the sanctioning body. He was going out and running his program to find out how to make his race car fast.

“You don’t have the freedoms at the racetrack that you have in R&D when you can organize your tests and all your components. But Jimmy stepped back up and jumped in front, and he’s done a better job than I think anybody could with Matt.”

Fennig won 14 races in five seasons with Martin beginning in 1996, a decade after first working with Mr. Mark. Fennig also won 14 races in four seasons with Busch beginning in 2002, culminated by Kurt’s title. And Fennig was the guy calling the shots on the February day when Allison’s No. 12 Miller High Life Buick Regal beat son and rising star Davey’s No. 28 Texaco Havoline Ford Thunderbird to win the 1988 Daytona 500 by two-car lengths.

Quizzed on his contribution to Matt’s drought-ending victory, Fennig was his to-the-point self. He and Kenseth “tweaked” on the No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford Fusion during each of eight pit stops, but never could make it perfect.

“There is still room to get it better yet,” said Fennig, conjuring up memories of Robbie Reiser, Kenseth’s original Cup crew chief and fellow Wisconsin-native. “Well, you know, yeah, I’m glad I’m back here and I’m glad I’m with Matt Kenseth driving the race car because it makes my job easy. But whatever Jack wants me to do, that’s what I’ll do. But I’m really enjoying working with Matt and hopefully we win some more races.”

Asked if he could describe how his relationship with Fennig has evolved, Kenseth

Matt Kenseth and his Roush Fenway Racing team got the job done in Texas. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

quipped: “Not with him sitting here.” Suffice it say it always has been good, dating back to ’97 and the intervention of Martin on his behalf.

“In that first year, it was ’97 or ’98, is when the testing rules were different, they used to let me come and hang out and test,” said Kenseth, 39. “And I’d stay in the hotel with the guys and I’d hang out with Jimmy a lot and ask him a lot of questions. I was probably like that pesky little kid. He was probably tired of answering questions. But I’d hang out and spend as much time as I could when I’d go to the track and test. So I’ve known Jimmy and respected Jimmy for what he’s done for a lot of reasons for a long time.”

Kenseth, himself a Cheesehead, collaborated with Reiser to win the 2003 Cup championship. Kenseth and Fennig exited Texas in the early hours of Sunday morning wearing Stetsons courtesy of TMS president Eddie Gossage, and with a huge confidence boost via a six-place jump in the driver point standings. Matty is now third after seven events, trailing teammate Carl Edwards by 13 points and only four in back of mercurial Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Kenseth reiterated how good it felt to wheel the No. 17 into Victory Lane again, and how much fun he has had going to racetracks during the last six months with Fennig.

“It feels like we’re back into contending form,” Kenseth said.

Sure does. Just ask Jack.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 11 2011
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