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.