DAYTONA BEACH — Matt Kenseth had a high expectation of victory. The former Sprint Cup series champion and reigning Daytona 500 winner, in his signature shiny black and gold fire suit, was tucked nimbly into a go-kart. His collection of media "competitors" were stuffed mostly into generic blue overalls and seemingly tiny machines.
Kenseth was moving toward the front and negotiating one of the final snake turns on a makeshift track laid out for a Daytona International Speedway promotional event for tonight's Coke Zero 400 when — wham! — a reporter sent him careening off the track.
Daytona had made its point again: Come here with no expectations. Be happy with your result, thrilled if it works out like it did for Kenseth in February, when he made a pass on Lap 146 and won NASCAR's biggest race when rain halted the event 48 laps short of its scheduled 200.
On restrictor-plate tracks like Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, a dozen perfect calculations and a hundred deft maneuvers can be undone by one decision by another driver, one fickle shift of momentum by a freight train of race cars at 200 mph.
In February, Kenseth started 39th and passed Elliott Sadler to lead his only laps of the race in the final seven. Go figure.
"It can be maddening sometimes when you think you do the right thing, and then you just get in the wrong lane and everyone else got in the other one and blew by you, and you lose a bunch of spots," Kenseth said. "There's a little bit of an art to it, but it can be frustrating, for sure."
Kenseth was running toward the front in the 2006 Daytona 500 when Tony Stewart made an aggressive move that sent Kenseth's No. 17 Ford sliding through the grass. Stewart incurred a penalty for aggressive driving, ironic given that he had championed responsibility and safety all week. The normally sedate Kenseth was outraged, and he was sanctioned by NASCAR for swerving toward Stewart's car on pit road. Kenseth finished 15th.
"I've never prepared to win one here before," said Kenseth, who starts 10th tonight. "We've been close a couple times. A couple times here we had real fast cars; that one year that Stewart and I got into it, we had a car to win the 500 that day for sure, it handled so good. There's been a couple times we had real good cars and just didn't get to the end. So I pretty much prepare to get beat, and if I win, it's a great surprise."
Stewart's cryptic predictions of restrictor-plate-created doom faded after 2006, but they returned this spring at Talladega when Brad Keselowski's race to the finish with Carl Edwards sent the No. 99 tumbling into the catch fence in a wicked crash that injured several fans. Still, Kenseth said, restrictor-plate racing is better and safer than it was before. His opinion on plate racing seems rooted in his '06 experience.
"For years and years we had this discussion every time we went plate racing: Somebody wrecks, and they get out of the car and say, 'They're not going to change it until they kill somebody,' " Kenseth said. "Most of the big wrecks are caused by us running into each other. If we could not do that, it would be a good start."
Kenseth's approach in winning the Daytona 500 was sound, says six-time Daytona winner Jeff Gordon.
"It's rare that you as a driver take your car and make some great move and the car sticks better than everybody else's or has more speed than anybody else's," he said.
Easily stated, carefully implemented behind a wheel, be it a Sprint Cup stock car or a go-kart. "I was mad I got beat that last corner," Kenseth said after the June media event. "I mean, it was a cool move. I just wish I'd done it. I had to quit playing Monopoly with my family. I mean, that stuff, I get competitive."
Just temper the expectations.