Matt Kenseth has now won two Daytona 500s: one shortened by rain and one lengthened by fire, where the news revolved around every storyline _but_ the winner himself. Yet as Kenseth flashed his pearly whites, holding up the trophy in Victory Lane approaching 1 AM EST he was once again pushed to the back pages. You had a woman who finished 38th, but her sex alone was enough to put her front and center, the second coming of NASCAR Jesus. There was a mangled jet dryer, from Michigan Speedway whose pilot will endure six months of nightmares after Juan Pablo Montoya plowed into his driver’s door, inciting a fire that led to a two-hour, patience-challenging delay. And there was the wrath of Mother Nature herself, raging downpours forcing a postponement of the race for the first time in its 53-year history. When all was said and done, the Rolex 24 in Grand Am looked like a walk in the park compared to an event that started well over 30 hours past its scheduled start time.
Even the authenticity of Kenseth’s win itself came under question from critics, a heavy Daytona fog clouding minds in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. Some will go to their grave feeling teammate Greg Biffle stayed in line intentionally, giving up on a chance for a 500 victory through Roush Fenway orders, close friendship, or some non-racing reason, falling further behind Kenseth on the final lap despite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. virtually attaching the No. 88 car to the No. 16’s rear bumper. When the checkered flew, Kenseth held steady in front of both, clinching a second victory in the Great American Race since 2009 while NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver took second place. But even _that_ story, the (maybe) rise of Junior back to prominence may produce more headlines.
“I’m happy for Matt,” Earnhardt said, joking about his longtime friend and trying to put the attention back on the winner. “He’s going to need that for his college fund, and them kids will be in good shape now.”
They’re a long way from school now; in fact, the kids haven’t even hit preschool age yet. But when they do grow up, they’ll learn all about their dad’s incredible comeback story. For all intents and purposes, Kenseth shouldn’t have been up front in the first place. The No. 17 car, halfway through the race, was spouting out water faster than your local city fountain. Forced to address overheating at one point, under yellow, the team took too long, he fell half-a-lap behind heading to the green and nearly got lapped on-track before another blown engine: Jeff Gordon’s. At another point, the team had problems communicating with each other over the radio, wreaking havoc on a track where spotting is crucial. His Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Carl Edwards, suffered through fuel pressure issues and there was concern No. 17 would be next.
“I wasn’t expecting to win when I woke up this morning,” he wisecracked in the media center after the race. Taking the Duel, Roush Fenway’s first in 25 seasons of coming to Daytona was enough for him.
Turns out it wasn’t. Instead, the “Big One” got reeled in, maintaining a reputation as “that guy” who sneaks up and captures Cup trophies when you least expect it. 22 total now, in fact; that’s more than good buddy Junior and sixth among active drivers. He’s earned a Cup title, in 2003 that critics claim was done by stroking; Kenseth won just once, collecting 25 top-10 finishes instead to distance Jimmie Johnson by 90 points. But again, that trophy is on the shelf; and ever since, he’s been 7-for-8 in making the Chase, collecting four more top-5 point finishes while pushing Johnson to the brink in ’06 before falling short. Those statistics can’t be claimed by any of his current RFR teammates, including Carl Edwards and they even outpace Roush legend Mark Martin over the same time span. If Cousin Carl is Ford’s unlimited potential, Kenseth is Ol’ Reliable, their most consistent wheelman even in the worst of times who’s already delivered on his promises.
The flip side to that, of course has been that Kenseth’s superstardom remains hidden behind the low-key nature of his Wisconsin personality. The man is actually one of the funniest drivers in the NASCAR garage area; you just have to stop, then take a moment to get to know him. Sarcasm reigns, along with a love for hardcore rock (Metallica) and the Green Bay Packers. But when it comes to the hunky-dory, please-your-sponsor routine, the outgoing Edwards becomes the better spokesman for making Subway sandwiches, then turning around and hobnobbing with the Fortune 500 executives of UPS. There’s a reason Kenseth was fourth in points last year, yet came into the season nail-biting on whether there would be a full-time backer on the side of his No. 17 Ford; in this age where the sponsors make the talent, not vice versa, Kenseth is a throwback to an “old school” world where he and Junior once co-existed, side-by-side in perfect harmony.
Can talent win out again? You’d think Best Buy executives won’t be ignoring Kenseth like some of the other assembled media; one race into the new partnership, which is only for nine races as of now they’ve got the biggest win in American auto racing to their credit. Will they realize talent still translates into triumph in the boardroom, their company now thanked on every major talk show from New York to San Francisco? Or were the people that mattered so tired from NASCAR’s whole delay they were asleep before the checkered flag fell?
Let’s hope not, because Matt Kenseth again provided an ending every fan should have stayed awake for. It’s just a matter of whether this victory will be enough to move him from “sideshow” to “main attraction” in a series where he’s the top contender year in, year out that nobody seems to remember.