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MATT KENSETH is a worrier. Since the earliest days of his racing career, on those teenage Saturday nights on the short tracks of his native Wisconsin, Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, has always found something to fret over. Should he change two tires or four on this pit stop? Does he have enough fuel to make it to the finish? In the days leading up to the 51st running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, what ate at Kenseth was his 36-race winless streak. On the eve of NASCAR's grandest event, he was lounging in his motor coach in the infield of Daytona International Speedway with his wife, Katie, when his self-doubt got the best of him. "I'm tired of not being a contender anymore," Kenseth, 36, told Katie. "I'm tired of not winning. Maybe I'm starting to lose it."
Or maybe not. On Lap 146 of 200 in Sunday night's race, with storm clouds approaching the speedway carrying the rain that had been expected all day, Kenseth sped along the front stretch at 190 mph behind leader Elliott Sadler. Kenseth's crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, had radioed his driver minutes earlier telling him that bad weather was imminent and that it was time to test the limits of his race car. Kenseth did. After following Sadler on the high line into Turn 1, he dove low and received a push from the 2007 winner, Kevin Harvick, which thrust Kenseth past Sadler and into the lead. Moments later Aric Almirola, running amid heavy traffic back in the pack, spun into the infield, sending up the caution flag. Raindrops then started falling on the 2.5-mile speedway, and NASCAR ordered the cars onto pit road.
For 17 minutes Kenseth sat behind the wheel of his number 17 Roush Fenway DeWalt Ford unsure, as the rain drummed on the roof, whether the race was over. This wasn't how he had envisioned winning his first Daytona 500 back when he was 13 and his father bought him his first race car, a Camaro. But when a team member appeared at the window and told him that NASCAR had declared him the victor, Kenseth, the most stoic driver in the sport, climbed from his car and did something in front of the cameras and notebooks that he'd never done in his 10-year Cup career: He wept. "Matt doesn't let people see the emotional side of him," said Katie as she stood in Victory Lane answering more than 50 congratulatory text messages on her cellphone. "But he'll cry even before I do when we watch a sad movie. I think he's letting it out now because this dry spell has been so hard on him. He started to second-guess himself. I mean, he's not one of the young guys in the sport anymore."
True, Kenseth is no longer a Young Gun—in fact Gillette replaced him three years ago in its ad campaign of that name with his teammates, Carl Edwards, then 26 and Jamie McMurray, 29—but he's well positioned to make another championship run. Kenseth's owner, Jack Roush, overhauled the number 17 team after it finished 11th in the final standings last season, its worst finish since 2001. In December, Roush promoted Blickensderfer, who had guided Edwards to seven victories in the Nationwide Series last year. Chip Bolin moved from crew chief to lead engineer ("This gives us two guys with experience being crew chiefs," says Kenseth) and Kenseth's spotter from his championship season, Mike Calinoff, returned to the team. "Last year I let Matt down," says Roush. "We didn't manage to get the organization of his team right. Matt did everything he needed to do, but we didn't get it right for him."
Though Kenseth's signature skill—the ability to avoid wrecks and conserve his equipment—doesn't cause fans to leap out of their seats, it served him well on Sunday. On Lap 124 every driver's worst Daytona nightmare unfolded directly in front of Kenseth when the Big One erupted. As Kenseth hurtled down the backstretch in fourth place, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevy came up fast behind Brian Vickers' Toyota, with both drivers a lap down and running beside the leaders. Vickers moved down to block Earnhardt, who veered back to the right and clipped Vickers. A heartbeat later Kenseth could see several out-of-control cars in his path, including the number 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch, who had led 88 of the first 120 laps and appeared to be the driver to beat.
Barreling into a cloud of smoke and spinning cars, Kenseth kept his foot on the gas and swerved to his left, missing Vickers by less than a foot as Vickers slammed into Busch, who slammed into the wall. Ten cars were involved in the wreck, but not the number 17. This was Kenseth at his best.
"Matt just doesn't make mistakes, man," said Earnhardt, one of Kenseth's closest friends, as he walked along pit road after the race, still reeling from his role in the wreck. "He's cold-blooded out there. He'll come within an inch of you and then somehow not cause any problems. If that team is right, and it looks like they are, he'll be a contender for the title this season."
As will Busch, who was blunt in his assessment of the way his race ended. "It's just unfortunate that two guys got together that were a lap down and were fighting over nothing," he said.
Though this was Roush's first victory in his 22 years of competing in the Great American Race, it reaffirmed an old motor sports axiom: Money buys speed. Last season the four richest teams in NASCAR—Roush Fenway, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing—combined to win 32 of the 36 races and filled all 12 slots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the season's 10-race playoff. The gulf between the sport's haves and have-nots has never been wider, but the days of underfunded, single-car teams running nose-to-nose with the powerhouse organizations haven't completely gone the way of the open-faced driver's helmet. Wood Brothers Racing, the feel-good story of the fortnight of practice and racing known as Speedweeks, proved as much at Daytona.
Some history: The Wood Brothers formed in 1950 and were one of NASCAR's pioneer teams. They've won 96 Cup races, but none since 2001. With the off-season merger of Petty Enterprises—another organization that goes back half a century—and Gillett Evernham Motorsports, the Wood Brothers are the oldest team in NASCAR, and the last link to the era when a driver and his pit crew of drinking buddies could show up at the track on a shoestring budget and, using guts and guile, win the race.