TAMPA — To Matt Kenseth, his Daytona 500 victory last year "seems like so long ago" because of what happened afterward. Kenseth, NASCAR's 2003 Cup champion, won the first two races last season but struggled the rest of the way, failing to make the Chase for the Championship for the first time.
With Daytona a month away, Kenseth, 37, made an appearance Thursday at Busch Gardens to talk about his roller-coaster 2009 season. Kenseth, a Cambridge, Wis., native, didn't ride any coasters ("I don't like heights"), but he did win a tug-of-war with a tiger ("I think he was just messing with me").
How did you celebrate winning the Daytona 500?
It was almost like winning the championship, the three-day tour we went on, how many people showed up. We went to San Francisco, rode the trolley. It surprised me … how many people actually showed up, watched the race, knew we won, knew we were coming. I knew it was the biggest race, but it just surprised me a little bit how important it was.
What went wrong last year?
I look back at the whole season, look at our whole organization, I almost kind of ask the other way around, "What went right the first two weeks?" Because the whole rest of the season for our whole organization, for Greg (Biffle) and Carl (Edwards) to go winless when those two combined for 11 wins the year before, something was wrong within the organization; the way we were building cars or putting cars together. … The main problem was our cars just weren't fast enough. Even if we made a mistake or got behind or I messed up something or got off an adjustment, our cars were never fast enough to rebound from any of that.
How long do you want to continue racing?
The goal is to be competitive all the time and do it as long as you want; to do it on your terms, that would be your goal. Not too many people get to do that anymore. It's competitive; really hard when you have a couple down years. It doesn't really matter what you've done in the past, people are going to look at what you're doing now. I was worried about this year to be honest with you. There was a time we didn't have (many) sponsors, trying to get some of that stuff going. It came up a couple years that weren't that great. I don't think it's ever a given anymore. I don't think you can write the rules like you could 10 years ago. Ten years ago I think most experienced veterans could race as long as they wanted to. It's not really that way anymore.
As a lifelong Packers fan, are you upset watching Brett Favre lead the Vikings in the playoffs?
I don't think you could have a better quarterback than Aaron Rodgers, so it doesn't really bother me. If we had just a terrible quarterback and Favre left, you'd be kind of maybe feeling different about it. But I don't think we would have won more games with Favre than Rodgers, really.
How much of an adjustment was it with a new crew chief last year (Drew Blickensderfer) and how can you build off it?
It started off really strong, obviously, we won the first two races. And we knew it was going to be downhill from there — you're not going to win every race — we didn't think we'd drop off as bad as we did. But we went through a lot. I think Drew learned a lot, and I think probably I learned a lot about him and he got to see every side of me last year. I think we've learned what makes each other tick; what I like, what I don't like, not necessarily carwise but just in general. So I think it'll be a better year. I think we'll both have a little bit more of a comfort level with each other and how we like to run things.
You're one of the few drivers to spend an entire career with one team (Roush Fenway Racing, since the late 1990s).
I've always got along well with Jack (Roush). They've always given me everything we've ever asked for, everything we've needed to be competitive and win. I've never asked Jack for a piece of equipment or to go test somewhere or spend money on something and he's told me no. That's never happened.
How have you changed over the course of your decade in Cup racing?
If anything, I probably appreciate it a little bit more; enjoy it a little bit more than I did five or six years ago. I've always realized it's hard, but as you get older and start looking around and seeing the younger kids coming in, you start to realize a little bit more that your days are numbered."