Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday September 5, 2006
When NASCAR made the bold decision to revamp its existing points structure in favor of a playoff type format, it was for the sole purpose of creating more drama for the race fans. It was drama, the sanctioning body hoped, that would translate into both higher at-track ticket sales and television ratings. Although the final tally on how much, if any, increases have been realized are open to debate, NASCAR has been successful in structuring a points system that does create the desired drama. Saturday night’s Chevy Rock and Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway will corroborate that. There will be nine drivers separated by a scant 147 points vying for eight spots in the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship. Countless scenarios are possible that would eliminate any one of the nine professionals from making the ten driver shootout for the coveted title. Every pass, rev of the air gun, entry, and exit off pit road will be crucial for all the Chase hopefuls…well, almost all of them.
Two of the eleven Chase contenders will not factor into the excitement of Saturday night – points leader Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. Both have long ago garnered the requisite number of points needed to assure eligibility in the Chase. Though there will be plenty of suspense as the race unfolds, as drivers put forth eleventh-hour efforts to extend their hopes of being crowned the 2006 Nextel Cup Champion, Kenseth and Johnson, through workmanlike performances throughout the season, will not need to resort to any closing lap heroics or acts of desperation. They are almost bystanders to a race that has all the makings of becoming gut-wrenching for the other nine hopefuls, their teams, and their fans.
That Matt Kenseth is not part of the big story this week is not a surprise. Neither is it particularly surprising that he is now leading the Nextel Cup driver standings. The 2003 Cup Champion has been on top beforeâ€¦quite a bit. Kenseth’s latest reign of supremacy came when he wrestled the top spot from Johnson after a quiet, uninspiring seventh place finish at California last Sunday. There has been no real enthusiasm exhibited on Kenseth's behalf by either the sports media or by-and-large from NASCAR fans; in fact, Kenseth moving up in points has been little more than a footnote to the coverage of the race. That falls right in line, though, with the NASCAR career of the Wisconsin native…consistently good performances, but little accolade to go along with them.
If a NASCAR driver’s popularity and appeal was based solely on his or her on-track accomplishments, there is a good argument for Matt Kenseth having his own radio and TV show, hiring police escorts for his autograph signing appearances, regularly talking it up with the late night TV hosts, and appearing on every other commercial during a race broadcast. But that is not the case. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is generally recognized as the most popular (and possibly most prosperous) of all NASCAR drivers. Yet Kenseth, the racecar driver, has done no less than Junior to have earned equal recognition. Their careers are very comparable, and some might argue that Kenseth has even outperformed the likeable son of seven time Cup Champion Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
The two drivers, who have always purported to be friends off the track, have been fierce competitors on. Kenseth raced in Junior's shadows as they rose through the Busch Series ranks, with Earnhardt, Jr. winning Championships in 1998 and 1999 while Kenseth posted second and third place finishes in points, respectfully. Both drivers graduated to the Cup ranks full-time in 2000, with Kenseth winning Rookie of the Year honors, besting Earnhardt, Jr. However, their NASCAR Cup career numbers are strikingly similar, with Junior at 17 wins and 67 Top 5s, besting Kenseth's total by three in each category. Conversely, Kenseth's 114 Top 10 finishes tops Junior by ten, and the Roush driver holds a slight advantage in career average finish, 15.3 to 16.2. Numbers rarely tell the whole story, yet they rarely lie, either. Clearly, Kenseth's career to date is every bit as impressive as NASCAR's most popular driver.
Of course, there is also Kenseth’s 2003 championship…which should count for something, but has done very little to bolster souvenir sales, endorsement deals, or his fan base to any level remotely similar to that which Dale, Jr. enjoys. However, Junior isn't responsible for Matt Kenseth's popularity and/or lack thereof. Junior has dealt well with the circumstances in his life and career, and as a result, he is where he is today as a driver and celebrity. Likewise for Kenseth, though fame has thrust itself at Junior and he has capitalized on it, Kenseth seems to have no real interest in pursuing anymore of it than he needs to inherit by being a top-notch stock-car driver.
No, Kenseth has done little to distinguish himself once he takes his helmet off. He is apparently content with being a highly competent racecar driver, and shows no need for further gratification. Although it seems that he is almost invisible at times before and after a race, he does let his presence be known more often than not during a race. Throughout his still young career he has been effective at avoiding controversy, and what little there’s been was limited to a handful of on track disagreements, most of them not through any personal misconduct on his part. His demeanor when participating in the obligatory interviews is similar to that of his driving style; smooth and efficient. Matt Kenseth was not born with the "gift of gab," nor does he seem interested in acquiring such a trait. Any increase in his popularity will be accomplished over the long haul, and based almost completely on his driving accomplishments.
There is an irony to Kenseth being already locked into the Chase, and not a contributor to this weekend’s desired high drama. Though NASCAR denies it, many have assumed that the 2003 "snoozer" of a points race, in which Kenseth built a insurmountable lead weeks before the end of the season while only winning once, prompted NASCAR to move to the present Championship format. Alas, here we are 26 races into the season, and the unassuming Matt Kenseth is leading in points again, butâ€¦this time with two wins. Looks like no NASCAR changes will keep Kenseth from continuing to be successful, no matter how much of a fan following exists for him.
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