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Kenseth Still Consistent

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Matt Kenseth used consistency to win his first NASCAR championship. His strategy was so boring, the sanctioning body changed the rules to prevent a repeat.

Kenseth, though, didn't change his style.

Now, in the ultimate revenge, Kenseth sits smack in the middle of the current points standings and well within striking distance of a second Nextel Cup championship.

"That would be cool," Kenseth said. "That's what our goal has been all year ... to come back and try to win the championship under this new format."

The race for the championship lacked drama last year as Kenseth, using a cautious and steady style, had a series-high 25 top 10 finishes in 36 races. Although he won just one race, he practically locked up the title in July.

Sure, other drivers were mathematically within reach of Kenseth, but with just two DNF's all season and a knack for finishing somewhere around fifth place every week, he basically ran away with the title.

Because the stretch run of the season meant very little in terms of crowning a champion, NASCAR radically overhauled the points system it had used since 1975.

Under the new formula, NASCAR will take the top 10 drivers and reset their point totals after 26 races. The eligible drivers will be separated from first through 10th in five-point increments and compete for the title in a 10-race playoff format.

NASCAR denied Kenseth's boring title run was the reason for the change. He believes otherwise.

"NASCAR said they didn't change it because of us, but they did," he said. "It's more of a compliment than anything. We did that good and the team did such a good job of being consistent and not dropping out.

"We just didn't make a lot of mistakes last year, and it's hard to do it all season long."

With just two races to go before the field is reset, Kenseth is in fifth place in the standings. If the playoffs began tomorrow, he'd be 20 points behind leader Jeff Gordon.

No one is sure what the correct strategy will be to win a title under the new format. Some drivers will be aggressive, going all out to try to win all 10 races. Others will just try to stay out of trouble, fearful that one accident, one broken part, will instantly ruin their chance at a title.

Jack Roush, Kenseth's car owner, is pretty sure his driver will do the same thing he's always done.

"He doesn't practice real hard, he doesn't run real hard early in the race except to get track position, and then he hangs around the front until it's time to go," Roush said. "When it is time to go, he goes and tries to close the deal."

Kenseth believes that is how the championship will be won this year.

"I think the guy who wins this thing is going to be the guy who can run fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh every week and doesn't have any DNF's," Kenseth said. "I don't think it's going to be the guy who wins two or three races and drops out of two or three races.

"It's still going to be the guy who is most consistent."

It's not exactly what NASCAR had in mind when it overhauled the system.

Then again, it's not exactly the way Kenseth wants to win titles, either.

He much prefers the old system, when the points leader is hunted by the other 42 teams in the garage. Being mentally strong and able to hold off the challenge week in and week out was an important part of earning a championship.

"I'm a traditionalist, I liked the points the way they were before," he said. "It used to be you had pressure all year from Daytona to Atlanta. Now, there is pressure to get into the top 10. Then, it's only the top 10 who have the pressure."

Still, it's hard to believe Kenseth and his No. 17 team didn't start the season feeling just a little heat to turn things up a notch. After winning just one race all of last season, they opened this year by winning two of the first three events.

Kenseth later added a victory in the annual all-star race.

But it's been a series of top 10 finishes since then, and Kenseth wants to ride them right into the playoffs.

"No matter what, you don't want to go into the last few races without any momentum," Kenseth said. "So more than thinking about making the top 10 these last two races, we're thinking about running good and trying to get to Victory Lane and carry some momentum into the last 10."

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