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Kenseth is a low-key NASCAR champ

December 21, 2003|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

He has been called as engaging as a tub of vanilla ice cream. He has been described as a hermit's hermit. And there's little chance he'll be featured on the covers of Rolling Stone or GQ magazine any time soon.

When it comes to Matt Kenseth's persona, it's minimalist over Maxim magazine. When it comes to Matt Kenseth's preferences, it's C-SPAN hearings over MTV's "Cribs."

So it's no surprise, after an early summer race in southeast Michigan, to find the National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) driver sitting in his 2003 Ford Taurus in a long line of vehicles waiting to leave Michigan International Speedway.

Here is where you find NASCAR's leader - now champion - when the day is done. Off the road and then back on the road. Out of traffic. Back in traffic. Showered in 10 minutes, dressed in five more and then in a dead sprint to his car where he drives himself out of the infield with his wife, Katie, by his side.

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Just another day at the office. Just another top-five finish. And Number 17 - now Number One - is only interested in the quickest way to the airport.

"I'm just into the business at hand," Kenseth says before leaving the infield with a fourth-place finish. "And it wasn't the best, but I thought we tried to take care of business in our own way."

It's all business for Kenseth, not that you'll hear him talk about it.

"He might not be flashy," team owner Jack Roush said, "But he gets the job done, doesn't he?"

Kenseth, 31, won't say that stock-car racing is a job. But his approach couldn't be more 9-to-5. His ability to win couldn't be more perfunctory.

In a way, like fellow young guns Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, Kenseth embodies the style of the new NASCAR driver - rising through the ranks with the same velocity he has shown on the track while displaying a whole new style of driving. He's a tactician, while still willing to gamble. He's a fighter, but a thinker.

"I just want to take it one race at a time and stay competitive," he said, "and we'll see where it ends up."

How prophetic, considering that, months after that comment, the championship now belongs to this native of Cambridge, Wis.

Kenseth's business-as-usual approach began on short tracks when he was 16. Success came early and often. He won his first feature event in just his third start when he was still a high-school junior. By 19, he had moved his way up to the ultra-competitive Wisconsin late-model stock-car ranks where he became the youngest winner in ARTGO Challenge Series history (the minor leagues of stock-car racing).

Over the next three seasons, Kenseth scored 46 wins and captured multiple championships before taking his ability south where he competed in NASCAR's "feeder" ranks (ASA, Hooters, etc.). After that, the Busch Grand National series came calling.

By age 25, in less than 10 years on the track, Kenseth placed 11th in his first Busch race (1997) and went on to capture two top-five and seven top-10 finishes in just 21 starts that first year. He was runner-up in the rookie-of-the-year points battle.

Over the next two years he would bounce back and forth between dominating performances in the Busch Series to respectable fill-in roles in the top-tier NASCAR Winston Cup series where he now races full time.

In 2000, he would really break through. In addition to making history as the first rookie to win the long-running Coca-Cola 600 held every year in Charlotte, N.C. - in just his 18th Winston Cup start - Kenseth also won the rookie-of-the-year title. By season's end, his team finished 14th in the championship points and recorded four top-five and 11 top-10 finishes.

But, for Kenseth, it was just a flash of what was to come. His second season in Winston Cup, he finished 13th in points with four top-fives and nine top-10s. His third year, in 2002, he won five times at a variety of tracks, the most of any driver, and good enough for eighth place by season's end.

This season has epitomized Kenseth's style.

Despite few victories, he has sat atop the points standings since the fourth week of competition. Eight months running with one man running up front. His lead at the midway point of the season was the largest for any driver in 16 years. Steady. Consistent. Confident. Some have compared his cool demeanor to that of NASCAR legend David Pearson, who achieved 105 NASCAR wins during the 1960s and '70s.

"Some might even say I'm a little boring," Kenseth admits. "But I'll let the record speak for itself."

Driver Jeff Gordon might have put his finger on it.

"He's a smart, tough driver and I think the team has continued to evolve with him. Even when they have a weakness, their weakness is a 12th- or 13th-place finish. Not a 30th."

Kenseth has proven that you don't have to spend a lot of time whooping it up in victory lane to be a champion.

Calm, steady and getting the job done - a job well done - one race at a time, Kenseth will earn his dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City when NASCAR holds its year-end banquet there in December.

With any luck, the traffic will be light that day.




Jason Stein is a feature writer and the editor of Wheelbase Communications' RaceWEEK racing page. He can be reached at jstein@wheelbase.ws.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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