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The Chase for the Championship mainstay has struggled since his roaring start this year and is right at the cutoff.

Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Two weeks into the NASCAR season, Matt Kenseth could do no wrong. He began by winning his first Daytona 500 and followed that by winning the next week at California.

Next up was Las Vegas, where the Sprint Cup driver had won twice in his career, so he was exuding confidence.

"Flying home from California, I was like, 'Man, this is going to be pretty cool. We're going to have a real solid year and be a serious championship contender,'" he said Wednesday on a teleconference.

But Kenseth's engine blew up on the sixth lap at Las Vegas, and he hasn't been the same. The 37-year-old has no wins and just three top-five finishes since and hasn't been better than 10th since the July 4 race at Daytona, where he was eighth.

So, with two races before the Chase for the Championship begins, he is clinging to the 12th and final spot. Kenseth enters Sunday night's race at Atlanta holding a tenuous 34-point lead on hard-charging Kyle Busch, who is coming off a win at Bristol; and 39 points over Brian Vickers, who won the week before at Michigan.

"Honestly, ever since Las Vegas, it's just been a struggle," Kenseth said. "We ran good enough a few times to win races if all the stars would have aligned, which they didn't. ... One thing we're always known for, it seems like, if we're having a mediocre day, running 13th, 14th, 15th, somehow we'd figure out how to finish better than we were running all the time. More times than that it's been the opposite. Pocono, we ran second, third, fourth all day, couldn't make it on fuel, finished 16th. ... It seems like a season full of that."

Kenseth is one of two drivers to have made the Chase each season since it began in 2004; Three-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who has clinched a berth this year, is the other.

And at least Kenseth has two wins in 2009, so if he makes the Chase, he would carry 20 bonus points over. Two Roush-Fenway Racing teammates - fifth-place Carl Edwards and eighth-place Greg Biffle - have been more consistent, but neither has won. Some attribute RFR's drought to difficulties mastering the Car of Tomorrow.

"I don't know," Kenseth said. "Last year, Carl and Greg were able to win a few races. We went winless last year; just never felt like we totally had a handle on the COT."

Kenseth doesn't plan on trying anything different to hold off Busch and Vickers in the remaining pre-Chase races at Atlanta and Richmond.

"We've got to run our own race, really," he said. "We've been doing a little bit better lately, been more consistent. Like at Bristol, we ran 10th, which wasn't a terrible run for us. But the guys we're trying to beat in points, most of them still finished in front of us. ... We're probably going to have to run in the top five, top six both races to be safely in."