Catching up with Kenseth as he celebrates Daytona 500 win
Matt Kenseth's victory at Daytona 500 brought tears to his eyes on the track
He said he's gotten a huge response from fans and friends after the win
Kenseth returns to the track on Sunday at Auto Club Raceway in Fontana
Throughout its 60th anniversary season last year, NASCAR aired commercials featuring Matchbox Twenty's rousing single How Far We've Come. The point of the campaign was to assert that a once-regional, down-market, quasi-outlaw sport has broken out, crossed over and revved up to become a mainstream, nationwide phenomenon. And certainly there's no questioning NASCAR's pervasive presence in the American sporting, cultural and, lord knows, commercial landscape. But thankfully racing's still capable of moments of glorious cognitive dissonance.
Matchbox Twenty's chorus kept looping in my head on Tuesday afternoon while I sat at a table with a number of other reporters listening to Matt Kenseth, the winner of last Sunday's Daytona 500, hold court on racing and life in the unlikely setting of the Milton Berle Room in the Friar's Club mansion on West 55th Street in New York City. Kenseth was in the middle of a whirlwind media tour that had already taken him to David Letterman's desk side and to an appearance on Live with Regis and Kelly. Now here he was, a softspoken, easy-going Wisconsin guy, surrounded by hundreds of photos of wise-cracking New York and Hollywood comics looking down from the towering oak-paneled walls of a room named after the notorious cross-dressing, cigar-smoking, joke-stealing Uncle Miltie.
I wish I could report that Kenseth had stood up and in keeping with the tradition of the scathing Friar's Club roast, done a quick five minutes skewering his competitors:
"How 'bout that Mark Martin? Fifty-years-old and still racing. Fast as ever, too -- though he keeps leaving the turn signal on after every corner."
"Then there's Joey Logano. Eighteen years old! Mark Martin's got lug nuts older than that!"
"Carl Edwards? I wouldn't wreck Carl Edwards with Dale Junior's car!"
But, not surprisingly, Kenseth -- who, those who know him say, can be a very funny guy in private -- played it straight. And who can blame him? Crossover is one thing, but trying to be something he's not (never mind working blue) is most assuredly not what got Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, where he is. No one will ever give Kenseth a nickname like Wild Child (that's Kyle Busch) or The Intimidator (Earnhardt Sr.), but, as he proved at Daytona -- where he avoided what could have been a race-ending wreck by inches and then made his move into the lead just half a lap before the rains came and sealed his victory -- he is a master at car control and conserving his machinery and his effort until just the right moment.
Kenseth's victory at Daytona, his first win since the final race of 2007, may have been shortened by rain, but it was not cheapened by the early ending. "All 43 teams had access to the same information [about the coming rain] and the same opportunity," said Kenseth on Tuesday, "So everybody was racing just as hard and with just as much urgency to get to the front."
Just how much the win meant to Kenseth was clear on Sunday night when he climbed from his car with tears in his eyes. "In this sport," he said, "you always wonder whether you're going to win again." But the magnitude of winning the Great American Race has only begun to sink in. "I always knew that it was a big thing to win the Daytona 500," said Kenseth with a shake of the head on Tuesday. "But I never believed how big. Since the race, I've had 164 emails, 58 texts and my voice mailbox is completely full. The best thing has been to get the recognition of your peers, and I've had a lot of messages from other drivers and people in the sport."
Asked what the response has been back home in Wisconsin, Kenseth admitted he'd had very little time to check in with friends and family, but did report that the local news had been out in force and that even his grandmother, Edith Kenseth -- who celebrated her 95th birthday on Sunday -- had been interviewed by the local TV stations. (Despite the Friar's club setting, Kenseth passed on the chance to say something about Edith having once dated Mark Martin in high school.)
Despite all the hoopla, of course, there's a season of racing just getting started. "This changed my plans a little, as far as travel on Monday and Tuesday," admitted Kenseth, "but we'll be right back at the race track later this week [for Sunday's Auto Club 500 in Fontana]. I was very optimistic heading into Daytona, and even though Daytona doesn't always mean that much as far as the rest off the season goes, I'm still really optimistic."
He has every reason to be. He has made the Chase every year since its inception (which followed his Cup-winning season), and this season appears poised to challenge for wins throughout the year. Kenseth is particularly pleased with his new team arrangement, in which Chip Bolin, who served as crew chief last season, has moved back to the position of team engineer, and Drew Blickensderfer, Edwards's former crew chief in the Nationwide Series, takes over as crew chief for the number 17 DeWalt Ford. "Chip's the best engineer I've ever known," said Kenseth, "and for Drew to win the Daytona 500 in his first race, well, that's pretty cool."
Winning it at all is pretty cool, as Kenseth now knows. Indeed, as he said on Tuesday, you dream about it when you're a kid, but it is bigger than you ever imagined when you're sitting there in Victory Lane.
Look how far he's come.