LAS VEGAS - After a winless season, former NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth simply wanted to be competitive again.
He got his wish, and then some.
Kenseth has a chance at auto racing history today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where a victory would make him the first NASCAR driver to win the first three races of the season. He started his streak by capturing the season-opening Daytona 500 to end a 36-race winless streak and followed with last week's victory at California.
'It took us a whole year to win a race, so everything has got to line up just right,' he said. 'But if it happened, that would be pretty wild. That would be pretty crazy and something I've never really thought about.'
Although a poor qualifying effort has him starting 40th, and he's been fighting the flu all week, his rivals think Kenseth can complete the sweep.
'It could be an incredible feat if they do it. I believe that they can,' Jeff Burton said. 'I am not saying that they will, but I believe they certainly can.'
It's a position Kenseth hardly imagined he'd be in during a stressful two-season span in which he slowly faded as a weekly contender. He won two races in 2007, one at the start of the year and then the season finale to snap a 34-race winless streak.
Longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser stepped into a management role at Roush Fenway Racing following their final win at Homestead, and his absence was felt during last year's winless season. Chip Bolin, Kenseth's lead engineer, was elevated to crew chief but the promotion cost the team in Bolin's old position.
Kenseth sat down with Bolin at the end of the season, and the two agreed they should find a new crew chief. They turned to Drew Blickensderfer, who sparked teammate Carl Edwards to a second-half surge in the Nationwide Series, and Blickensderfer has done the same thing for Kenseth.
'I hope it's magic. I hope it keeps going,' Kenseth said, referring to the undefeated Blickensderfer. 'We were just lacking that guy last year. We all knew it. Chip knew it. He was trying to be the engineer and the crew chief and that was just way too much, so to let him go back and work on the cars has been as big a deal as anything.
'And to bring Drew in as crew chief with his leadership abilities and experience, and to be able to work side-by-side with Chip to help each other make us perform has been a big deal.'
It's put Kenseth back on top, and he admitted following his Daytona victory he had grown increasingly frustrated by his lack of competitiveness. He vented to his wife as recently as the day before the season-opener, wondering what it would take to get the No. 17 team back among NASCAR's elite.
'Last year was pretty stressful on him and he was pretty displeased with how his season was,' rival Kyle Busch said. 'I think this year, for him starting out the year strong like he did ... it wouldn't be a shock to see Kenseth win here, too.'
Kenseth has had great success at Las Vegas, winning races in 2003 and 2004, and Roush drivers have always been tough to beat on the 1.5-mile oval. Mark Martin won the first Cup race at the track in 1998 for Roush, and Roush drivers have won six of the 11 events since the track opened for NASCAR.
He'll certainly have to contend with teammate Carl Edwards, the defending race winner, as well as three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who won three straight races here from 2005-07.
The Busch brothers are certain to challenge. Kurt and Kyle Busch had strong qualifying efforts, intent on winning on their home track. Kyle Busch won the pole and Kurt Busch qualified second, making them the first brothers to sweep the front row since Rusty and Kenny Wallace at Martinsville in 2000.
But an engine change in Kyle Busch's car will send him to the back of the field at the start of the race, where he'll encounter Kenseth, who had a horrible qualifying run and needed a provisional to earn his starting spot.
Still, when the season started, Blickensderfer thought Las Vegas would be where they'd have their best shot at a win, and that hasn't changed.
'We're just going to take it one race at a time like we always do and just be business as usual,' Kenseth said. 'The pit crew has been operating at an extremely high level, and so have all the guys getting the cars to handle and run. I feel like we have the tools to be competitive and we'll just try to be as competitive as we can and hopefully be somewhere in position at the end.'
SideBar: Shelby 427
When: Today, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas