Matt Kenseth won the 2003 Sprint Cup championship and the feat was deemed so mundane — so the garage legend goes — that NASCAR created the Chase for the Championship to assure that nothing like it ever happened again. No need to retool the format for the Daytona 500, not even after the 36-year-old Wisconsin native made a pass just before a much-anticipated rainstorm. He won while sitting on pit road as the race was red-flagged and eventually halted 48 laps from the scheduled distance. The dryly witty but staid Kenseth, who still has not forgiven a Daytona Beach News-Journal columnist for writing in 2003 he would "paint the town plaid" after winning his title, showed plenty of emotion Sunday night at Daytona International Speedway. Huddled in his No. 17 Ford until NASCAR made the result final, he struggled to maintain his typical composure as he was mobbed by his Roush Fenway team and peers in the rain. "It's going to be really wet when I cry like a baby," said Kenseth, who gave
team owner Jack Roush his first Daytona 500 victory after going winless in 2008.
Kevin Harvick, who used a push from Kenseth to win the 2007 Daytona 500, returned the favor on the decisive pass in Turn 1 on Lap 146 on Sunday and finished second. A.J. Allmendinger was third. Clint Bowyer was fourth and Elliott Sadler, Allmendinger's teammate at the newly formed Richard Petty Motorsports, was crushed to finish fifth.
Kenseth led only the last seven laps, six under caution.
"Pretty unbelievable," he said.
A month ago, Sadler said, he would have rejoiced over the prospect of finishing fifth in the Daytona 500 after his team — a merged version of Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises — tried to force him out of the No. 19 Dodge for Allmendinger. Not so Sunday night, not after he popped into the lead on Lap 123 and held on until just minutes before the rain. Kenseth's pass in a backup No. 17 Ford fulfilled the sad-sack prophecy Sadler bemoaned to crew chief Kevin Buskirk on Lap 138, saying "there's rain on the radar and none on the racetrack."
Sadler, who required the threat of legal action to retain his job but had been the consummate team player upon his return, bucked up on the radio for the sake of crew morale, but admitted he was emotional when left alone with his thoughts circling under the final caution after he had been shuffled back to sixth.
"The lap I get passed in Turn 1, it starts raining in Turn 3," he said.
With rain forecast, the race took on a manic feel early, with teams vying to lead at Lap 101, the halfway point at which the race is official. Kyle Busch dominated that section, leading twice for 88 laps until he was eliminated on Lap 124 with four of the top seven cars in a wreck started by a tussle involving backmarkers Brian Vickers and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sadler led 24 laps.
Kenseth maneuvered through the fray in his slow trek to the top 10 and awaited his chance. He made his final pass just before a spin on the backstretch brought out the final caution as the rain increased.
Kenseth and first-time Cup crew chief Drew Blickensderfer attempted to keep each other calm as they circled under caution. Kenseth initially yelled "rain, rain, rain, rain" when the weather worsened, but he composed himself to continue: "Let's just stay calm here."
That's harder, he said, than many think.
"I am actually a pretty emotional guy," Kenseth said. "It's kind of funny. (Saturday) I was sitting in the motor home telling (wife) Katie — and I wasn't feeling sorry for myself — but I was really getting fed up with not winning and not being a contender."
A Daytona 500 win is no guarantee to change that. But it's an excuse to paint the town plaid on a rainy night.
No 'Days of Thunder,' Keith?
Country music star Keith Urban performed a surprise two-song set for reporters to kick off his day at the Daytona 500, where he was the featured artist for Sunday's prerace concert. "First time playing a press room," he quipped before launching into Sister Golden Hair by America. It was the first press room concert performed by the musical acts that Daytona International Speedway officials have brought before the media. Urban said he wasn't trying to one-up previous guests Big & Rich, Bon Jovi or Brooks & Dunn but played because "I just wanted to get in my comfort zone." He took brief questions and laughed awkwardly when asked what his favorite racing movie is. "Uhhhhh … Cars?" he stammered, choosing the animated movie over the more obvious Days of Thunder that featured his wife, Nicole Kidman, with her ex-husband, Tom Cruise. Later, Urban and Cruise attended the prerace driver meeting. The two were seated on opposite ends, but Cruise heartily applauded Urban when the singer was introduced. Urban also joked that he never has driven more than 65 mph in his personal car, before coming clean. "Maybe 130," he said. "It was pretty insane. It was only for a glimpse."