JOLIET, Ill. -- Matt Kenseth is a student of racing. He devours every tip he gets from another driver, and spends countless hours pondering ways to improve even the tiniest facet of his style. He pays attention to the sports' greats, both present and past, and makes sure he has a good enough sense of history to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.
That's why it meant so much to win the 2003 championship -- the last one raced under the system that so many of the great names he's studied won titles under. But it doesn't take away from his drive to win under the new system and repeat as champ this season.
On Sunday, the driver of the No. 17 Roush Racing Ford finished 12th in the Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. In the process, he solidified his fifth-place spot in the standings -- 399 points out of first. It was a nice save to a day that could have been disastrous as Kenseth avoided a near wreck and luckily suffered no damage after running over debris on the track.
"We're happy with that," he said. "We'll take that and move on."
It was especially satisfying given that he had so many friends and family at the track, visitors from his nearby home in Cambridge, Wis.
"I don't necessarily have more confidence going to Chicago as far as our performance is concerned or anything like that, but it definitely is fun to go to Chicago," Kenseth said. "It's one I really look forward to going to. You see a lot of race fans from the Midwest -- from the area where I grew up and where I raced at in the past -- so that's the closest track we go to from my hometown in Wisconsin.
"So it's exciting to go up there. I always get to see a lot of family and friends, a lot of race fans that used to watch us race short track stuff when we first started, so that definitely makes it a little extra exciting."
Though 12th is not a number the defending champ is usually happy with, it comes after finishing outside the top 20 four times in the five races before Chicago. In that sense, it was welcomed.
"We've had a pretty tough four out of the last five races, so we're ready
to start finishing good and get some momentum back and get everything
rolling before we get to those last 10 (for the title run)," he said.
Kenseth, true to history, is a bigger fan of the old system. But this year, without the benefit of some of the breaks he got last season, he is thankful for the points format. Despite his handful of disappointing finishes, he's fifth in the points race. If he maintains that position through race 26, the points will be reset and he'll be only 25 points behind the leader -- a mark easily made up in as quick as one race.
"We just need to get back up in there and be more solid in the top 10 so in case we do have more problems we don't drop out of (the hunt)," he said. "That is the good thing that with this new system, you can make mistakes and have problems and have things break early in the year and can still run for the championship, so that's definitely a lot different than it ever has been before."
This year, Kenseth has already been in a race-ending accident, blown an engine and finished 31st, 37th and 39th in three other events. It's definitely a big departure from last year's consistent campaign. Kenseth says it's not that the team has fallen behind. It's just that some of the elements necessary for a championship season are missing.
"There's a lot of lucky breaks or however you want to put it that goes
into this sport," he said. "Not running something over and getting a flat tire -- just all kinds of different things. Like we were in the wrong place at the wrong time at Daytona when a car broke right in front of us and we got in an accident. So some things like that can happen that are out of your control."
That's an attitude he learned from one of those greats he studied growing up. Ever since Mark Martin saw the kid race the Midwest tracks and tapped him to drive for him, Kenseth has thrown himself into emulating Martin's style -- both on and off the track.
"I've watched a lot of racing in the past," Kenseth said. "When I was growing up, whenever it was on TV back then I'd try to catch some of the races and I knew what was going on and I watched people. As far as when I started racing, I tried to base my style off of Mark Martin.
"He taught me a lot when I came here and when I started racing in the Busch Series and got to know him. He taught me a lot on what was the right thing to do and what wasn't the right thing to do. Things to do on the track and off the track. I tried to soak in as much of that as I could and tried to act like that the best I could."
He's done a pretty darn good job of it, too. Last season, he put it all together and got Martin his first championship. Martin was proud -- bittersweet because he still craves the driver's title that has eluded him, but happy nonetheless as a champion owner.
On Sunday, Martin ran out of gas with less than three laps to go and fell from a top-five finish to two laps down. It did serious damage to his push for the top 10, and might have cost him the chance to compete for the title. But if he doesn't get that chance, he's confident that he'll still be in the running for a big trophy at the end of the year.
"Matt's become one of those guys who can compete year in and year out," Martin said. "He's learned so much so fast and really just become a great driver. Everybody saw that last season, but (a change in the points system) doesn't change his chances. I think he's still got to be one of the favorites."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.