Soaking In The Win
A bold move by a rookie crew chief pays off for
reigning Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
During the recent Preseason Thunder media event at Daytona International Speedway, Matt Kenseth was introduced as the reigning champion of the Daytona 500. With his dry Midwestern sense of humor, he acted as if the host had welcomed the “raining champion,” a reference to the fact that Kenseth got his, and his Roush Fenway Racing team’s first Daytona 500 victory by taking the lead just as rain halted the race 112 miles shy of the advertised 500.
To the casual observer, Kenseth’s win was largely a fluke, a giant reward for being in the right place at the right time when a Sprint Cup race suddenly turned into a game of musical chairs at 200 miles per hour.
But in a recent interview, his then-rookie crew chief Drew Blickensderfer told the tale from his side, and it sounds more like a traditional racing victory than a stroke of luck.
The scenario that put Kenseth in position to win started during the Budweiser Shootout the week before.
“We were actually running second with one [lap] to go, got booted out of the way and kind of shuffled back and ended up wrecking our race car, so that was wreck number one,” Blickensderfer said.
Then it was on to Thursday’s 150-mile qualifying race, where another good race car was collected in a crash.
That was when Blickensderfer, in his first race as a Cup crew chief, had his first real test.
Kenseth wanted to run the repaired Bud Shootout car in the 500, but Blickensderfer vetoed the veteran driver and chose the back-up car sitting up top in the team’s transporter.
“That was the point when I knew I was the leader,” Blickensderfer said.
But it was a tough call, as Kenseth implored him to run the Shootout car.
“[Kenseth] said, ‘That’s a terrible decision. That car hasn’t been on the race track. Our Shootout car was just fine. Get it fixed and bring it back up here,’” he said.
Blickensderfer held his ground, knowing the team’s data showed the backup to be as good as any car they could run.
“I made that decision,” he said. “But I remember going home that evening saying, ‘Oh no, I just made Matt mad. He’s a superstar in the sport and a champion, and I’m this rookie crew chief that just put his foot down the first week of the year. This might be a long year.’”
On the Sunday afternoon of the 500, Kenseth had to start in the rear because of the car switch, but the team overcame that by pit strategy and soon had Kenseth among the top 10.
The way Blickensderfer saw it, there were only three or four cars that were faster than Kenseth, and all of them wound up getting wiped out in a wreck that Kenseth barely missed.
“So late in the race when we were running in the top three, the cars around us weren’t as fast as we were and I knew it,” he said. “I knew it was just a matter of time before we could take off.”
But with rain imminent, they still had to time it just right, and not get caught making a pit stop just before the rain started.
The rookie crew chief handled the situation like a veteran.
“We came and got tires towards the end of the race because we knew the rain was coming,” he said. “The last two or three cautions we stayed out knowing it was coming. They were quick cautions.”
At that point, all Kenseth really had to do was pass the leader, Elliott Sadler. And third-running Kevin Harvick, knowing Kenseth had the faster car, agreed to stick with him in the draft.
“So with a single-file restart it was just up to Matt to make the right move on Sadler,” Blickensderfer said.
Kenseth did, and the race was over.
Blickensderfer’s only regret was that he didn’t take time to soak in the win a little more.
“Six months later I kept thinking to myself, ‘I wish I could have Daytona back again,’” he said. “You want to grasp Victory Lane and winning the biggest race of your life over again.”