Saturday, June 23, 2018
Sports

Fresh start reinvigorates Kenseth

DAYTONA BEACH — Last year's Daytona 500 victory was a fitting highlight of Matt Kenseth's career.

He overcame mechanical issues to become just the ninth driver to win the Great American Race multiple times. But the race's lasting memories are not of the steady, vanilla veteran celebrating in Victory Circle, but of the 30 hours of rain delays and the fire that blazed in Turn 3.

"I think Matt is one of the most underrated drivers in NASCAR," 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne said. "That guy, he's got something special. I think this year he's got a little bit more motivation and fire because he's wanting to go prove a point."

That point: Kenseth has been overlooked for too long and belongs among the sport's elite drivers.

The 40-year-old Wisconsin native has quietly strung together a standout career.

Kenseth has 24 Sprint Cup victories and has won at most of the sport's big tracks — Talladega and Charlotte and Richmond and Bristol — while missing the Chase for the Championship only once. He's one of only seven drivers to win two Daytona 500s and a Cup title, and was so consistent during his 2003 championship run that NASCAR instituted the Chase the next year.

"There's no question he's a future Hall of Famer down the road," Fox analyst Larry McReynolds said.

But Kenseth's career has been more about stability than star power. Even in his title run, he only won one race, and he never has taken more than five checkered flags in a year.

Since 2003, he ranks fourth in finishes in the top five (105) and top 10 (187) and has averaged a sixth-place finish in points — second only to five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

"It seems like Matt always has a good race car," Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch said. "I can always be either really good or kinda bad, where he's always good."

That steadiness, combined with a dry wit and low-key personality, have made Kenseth easy to overlook — even by his team.

Though only Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports had a longer relationship together than Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing, the team didn't rush to extend his contract last year. Kenseth jumped to JGR.

"I think sometimes you think you're being taken for granted," Fox analyst and three-time Cup series champion Darrell Waltrip said. "I think Matt was just ready to surprise them a little bit and do something different."

For Kenseth, the move certainly qualifies as different. He spent his first 13 full Cup seasons with one team (Roush) and one car (the No. 17 Ford), and most of it with the same spotter (Mike Calinoff).

After working with his No. 20 Toyota in the JGR garage during the offseason — and swapping his Ford for a Toyota 4Runner — Kenseth is finally getting adjusted to his new career.

"I think I'm starting to get it," Kenseth said. "I'm pretty slow, but I've been trying to beat the 20 thing in my mind as much as I can."

Kenseth hasn't opened up about why he changed teams. But he said the move wasn't about respect or loyalty or a change of scenery — just a chance to earn another Cup championship on a powerhouse team that has won three since 2000.

He finished fifth in Thursday's second Budweiser Duel and will start 12th in Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.

"I don't feel like it's a situation at all where there's a learning period, a building period, a rebuilding period," Kenseth said. "I feel like this team is ready to go out and compete for wins and championships right away."

His new teammates agree.

JGR veteran Denny Hamlin gladly ceded the title as the team's senior driver to Kenseth. When Hamlin was rising through the NASCAR circuits, he said Kenseth was one of the racers he admired most because he didn't focus on being brash or flashy — just winning.

"He's a guy that you model yourself after," Hamlin said. "I think of Kenseth in the same breath that I'll think of Mark Martin. Those two guys have probably got the most respect of anybody in the garage.

"There are a lot worse drivers that get a lot more media, but that's what I like. I like a guy that flies under the radar and just collects trophies."

Maybe with a fresh start and a new team, Kenseth can start collecting more respect, too.

Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

 
Comments

Sports on TV/radio for Sunday, June 24

TODAYAutosFormula 1: French Grand Prix10 a.m.ESPN2IndyCar: Kohler Grand Prix1 p.m.NBCSNMonster Energy Cup: Toyota/Save Mart 3503 p.m.FS1; 102.5-FMNHRA: Summit Racing Equipment Nationals (taped)6:30 p.m.FS1BaseballYankees at Rays1 p.m.Fox Sun; 620-AMM...
Updated: 21 minutes ago
Rays team up to beat Yankees again, 4-0

Rays team up to beat Yankees again, 4-0

ST. PETERSBURG – A strong start by Wilmer Font, a team effort by the bullpen and big hits by rookie infielders Willy Adames and Jake Bauers led the Rays to a second straight win over the Yankees on Saturday, 4-0.In what was supposed to be anoth...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Greg Auman answers your questions about NFL’s investigation into Jameis Winston

Greg Auman answers your questions about NFL’s investigation into Jameis Winston

There are many unanswered questions and unresolved discrepancies to the story of Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston and the March 2016 Uber ride in Arizona that led to him facing a three-game suspension to start the upcoming season.The Bucs won't commen...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Will this be Jameis Winston’s last season in a Bucs uniform?

Will this be Jameis Winston’s last season in a Bucs uniform?

A t his introductory news conference after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Bucs in 2015, Jameis Winston said to judge him on his actions moving forward."Actions speak so much louder than words, or what they may have read or what they may have hear...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Rays Tales: Why ‘trades’ and ‘prospects’ are always in same conversation

Rays Tales: Why ‘trades’ and ‘prospects’ are always in same conversation

Besides the continual evolution of their intriguing pitching plan, the primary topics of conversation for the Rays over the next several weeks will be trades and prospects. And not mutually exclusively.Some sooner than others, the Rays are going to c...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Lightning takes Quebec LW Gabriel Fortier with second-round pick

Lightning takes Quebec LW Gabriel Fortier with second-round pick

The Lightning is on the board in the 2018 NHL draft, using their first pick — 59th overall in the second round — on Gabriel Fortier, an undersize left wing from Quebec."I spoke with them a couple of times, so I knew there was an interest,...
Updated: 5 hours ago
For starters: Rays vs. Yankees, looking for two straight

For starters: Rays vs. Yankees, looking for two straight

UPDATE, 2:38: Clarifying what was a communication error with the team PR staff, Rays manager Kevin Cash said LHP Blake Snell was slated for an extra day's rest all along and will face the Nationals on Monday not the Yankees on Sunday. The Rays will u...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Live blog: 2018 NHL entry draft

Live blog: 2018 NHL entry draft

The Lightning isn't scheduled to pick until the second round, but there's no telling how active they might be with trades, so you'll want to follow our live coverage throughout the NHL draft Friday (Round 1) and Saturday (Rounds 2-7) in Dallas.(funct...
Published: 06/23/18
Rodney Page’s takeaways from Rays-Yankees

Rodney Page’s takeaways from Rays-Yankees

1. SS Willy Adames had a nice night, and there appear to be many more in his future. He had two hits, an RBI and an inning-ending leaping catch on a line drive by Didi Gregorius in the fifth.2. DH C.J. Cron needs to shake things up. Take a different ...
Published: 06/22/18
Marc Anthony pays a visit to the Trop

Marc Anthony pays a visit to the Trop

By Allana BarefieldTimes Staff WriterST. PETERSBURG — Latin pop star Marc Anthony visited Tropicana Field on Friday to see his beloved Yankees play the Rays.Anthony spent nearly an hour on the field before the game as fans and players surrounde...
Published: 06/22/18