My Brain on NASCAR: Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me

Well, I really have to hand it to Matt Kenseth. After only 15 years of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition, he has finally gotten my attention.

This is most assuredly not Kenseth’s fault; it’s mine. So low-key in personality that he almost seems to suffer from the previously undiagnosed condition “wake apnea,” Kenseth has just never been one of those guys that I gave much consideration to week to week.

Obviously my humble opinion didn’t affect his performance much; while I was busy ignoring him, Kenseth was busy winning the 2003 Cup Series championship and 22 races, including a couple of Daytona 500s.

When you do happen to think of Matt Kenseth, you think of words like “steady” and “consistent.” Kenseth won only one race in 2003, but his string of top 10 finishes – 25 in 36 races – won him the championship, despite the fact that Ryan Newman visited Victory Lane eight times that season.

Prevailing opinion was that the guy with the lion’s share of the wins should be the rightful champion. Imagine that. So although NASCAR would probably never admit it, the following season we were introduced to something called the Chase for the Sprint Cup, AKA the “Matt Kenseth Rule.” Seriously.

Kenseth has spent virtually his entire Cup Series career with Roush Fenway Racing. Imagining one without the other is kind of like the idea of “Two and Half Men” without Charlie Sheen – off-kilter, not very entertaining and more than a little awkward.

But that’s what we’re dealing with here. Roush Racing announced on June 26 that Kenseth will be leaving the team at the end of the 2012 season, to be replaced in the No. 17 Ford by reigning NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Sheen moved on to a new hit show titled “Anger Management,” and in a way, that seems apropos of Kenseth. He may not have been angry per se, but surely one of NASCAR’s top performers must have grown weary of the constant fight to secure sponsorship.

Roush won’t openly admit that Matt, who is more of a family man than a pretty boy and doesn’t exactly sparkle with a camera in his face, was a challenge to sell. Instead, he blames our old friend the sponsorship struggle on the move.

“The determination and decision to run Matt and the 17 and carry on as usual was not dependent on any level of sponsorship,” he said. “If no sponsorship was there at all … we still would have run the 17 car for an indeterminate period of time,” he said.

“Matt is a champion, and certainly there has been interest … I guess I tend to differ that Matt has been a great challenge to sell sponsorship based on his image. I think the challenges we had were predicated and caused by the economy and the timing.”

In this deal, Kenseth wasn’t driven out; he was the driving force.

“Honestly, I had this other opportunity come up, and it really interested me. I’ve had other people call throughout my career with other opportunities, and I always stayed there at Roush,” he said. “This one was interesting. I felt at this point in my career and with the timing and the way everything was working, everything was kind of pointing me in that direction. I felt it was something I needed to do.

“Certainly at Roush Fenway, I walk in there, and I feel like it’s virtually mine because I’ve been there so long. I feel like I’m ingrained there deep, and I’m part of the organization. So it’s going to be really odd to not be part of that.”

That’s kind of an innocuous quote, but Kenseth’s destination is currently the worst-kept secret in NASCAR. Next year, we will most certainly see him behind the wheel of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing or, as Mr. “I hate any auto manufacturer without an American name” Roush referred to it, “the dark side.”

JGR driver Denny Hamlin said that Kenseth’s accomplishments speak for themselves. “If there was anyone I’d consider myself closest to as far as driving style, it’d probably be Matt. He brings so many assets to a race team. He’s going to be a valuable asset wherever he goes. Anyone would be lucky to have him.”

Hmmm.

Matt Kenseth is a mature grownup and father whose teammates will include Kyle “Rowdy” Busch and the aforementioned Denny “I Really Need a Cool Nickname” Hamlin. Both of those guys are known for what my grandmamma would have called a “smart mouth, and lo and behold, so is Kenseth. Will all the sarcasm in that bunch create a sarCHASM? That will be interesting to watch. We know it will be entertaining, to say the least.

At this point, it’s all speculation, really. We’ll just have to wait and see, because everybody’s talkin’, but nobody’s sayin’.

 

NASCAR columnist Cathy Elliott is also the author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” Visit her online at www.mybrainonnascar.com.

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