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Nate Ryan, USA Today

KENSETH SHINES AT RIGHT TIME

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After an offseason marred by news of crewmembers being laid off, sponsorships shrinking and teams folding, NASCAR tried kicking off its 2009 story line with a splash of celebrity mega-wattage. Tom Cruise. Gene Hackman. Keith Urban.

Matt Kenseth?

In a Daytona 500 preceded by movie star cameos and containing a few Hollywood-style plot twists, NASCAR's most unassuming champion stole the show on the sport's grandest stage Sunday.
Kenseth, a soft-spoken and stoic native of tiny Cambridge, Wis., who often shuns rather than seeks the spotlight, scored the biggest victory of his Sprint Cup career, passing Elliott Sadler shortly before the skies opened at Daytona International Speedway.

Starting 39th in a 43-car field in a backup car, Kenseth quietly sliced his way through traffic in workmanlike fashion and led only the final seven laps of NASCAR's crown jewel, which was shortened from 200 to 152 circuits by rain. It was enough for his and team owner Jack Roush's first win in the "Great American Race."

"It's going to be really wet out here now, because I'm crying like a baby," Kenseth, 36, said in a quivering voice as he climbed from his No. 17 Ford in the downpour that anointed him the winner of stock car racing's Super Bowl. "Winning the Daytona 500 is definitely a dream moment. It's just an unbelievable feeling."

Drew Blickensderfer, who won in his first start as a crew chief in NASCAR's premier series, said he heard "a Matt Kenseth kind of scream of 'rain, rain, rain' that was very uncharacteristic" on the team radio when the final caution flag flew under threatening skies that were beginning to sprinkle.
"And he said, 'Let's just stay calm here,' " Blickensderfer said.

Emotion rarely is on display with the even-keeled 2003 champion, the last to win the title before NASCAR implemented the Chase for the Sprint Cup title run. His laid-back, blue-collar persona sometimes seems out of place in a sport where drivers own million-dollar motor homes, lakeside mansions and Lear jets.

While some Cup drivers love cavorting in Manhattan during NASCAR's twice-annual media blitz in New York, Kenseth can't wait to leave the Big Apple (though he'll be whisked there today to hit the talk show circuit and joked he would "paint the town plaid"). When many peers jetted to Thailand and other exotic locales in the offseason, Kenseth and wife Katie retreated to a log cabin he built on a 130-acre property in the woods of southwest Wisconsin.

When asked last week if celebrities should take their work but not themselves seriously, Kenseth said, "I don't consider myself a celebrity."

Well-liked winner

While other drivers walked pit road during a 16-minute rain delay before the race was called, Kenseth hunkered inside his cockpit. "I'll hang out in a car with the cover over it and in the back pew at church," he explained. "That's me. I wanted to wait until it's over."

The down-to-earth style makes him an understated favorite. Runner-up Kevin Harvick happily used his No. 29 Chevrolet to deliver the push that shot Kenseth past Sadler into the lead.

"In the garage, it will definitely be a popular win," said Harvick, who won the 2007 Daytona 500 with help from a push by Kenseth. "Matt's a pretty stand-up person and a great race-car driver. He's one of those guys that can win seven or eight races in a year and never receive any credit.

"A lot of times, those things are overlooked."

Sadler, who nearly lost his job with Richard Petty Motorsports last month before threatening legal action against the team, was overlooked in his No. 19 Dodge after starting 30th. After a fortuitous pit sequence, though, he moved into first under yellow on lap 122 and led 24 laps before settling for fifth.
Kenseth passed him in Turn 2 on the final green-flag lap before a caution just before the storm.

"My crew chief told me for the last 45 minutes of the race that it's raining on the radar," Sadler said. "Welcome to Elliott Sadler's world. On the lap I get passed, it starts raining in Turn 3.

"If I would have made a better and smarter move, I'd be in victory lane now. I put my heart and soul into it, because I knew I had a lot of eyes on me."

So did Kyle Busch, who won one of Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races and whose No. 18 Toyota was the class of the field before a 10-car crash on lap 124. The crash, which also damaged the cars of front-runners Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, was triggered by a collision between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers.

Busch placed the blame on Earnhardt, whose No. 88 Chevy was a lap down after being penalized for his second pit miscue.

"One guy that had problems all day on pit road made his problems our problems and then our problems a big problem," Busch said. "It was really uncalled for to have two lapped cars racing. It cost me the winning car."

Stars come out

Busch led a race-high 88 laps, and it seemed fitting the spotlight mostly was on a driver with "

Rowdy' Busch" stenciled on the doorframe of his ride in the Camping World Truck Series.

The nickname is a nod to Rowdy Burns, a main character (an unpopular and aggressive driver not unlike Busch, who received the loudest boos in driver introductions) in “Days of Thunder,” and there were plenty of other reminders of the movie Sunday.

Several hours before the race, Cruise made laps in a green and yellow replica of the car he drove while playing Cole Trickle in the 1990 film. Cruise, who later drove the pace car to the green flag and sat atop Jeff Gordon's pit box, also received one of many loud ovations during a prerace drivers meeting that was a name-dropper's dream.

Also in attendance were Urban (the husband of Nicole Kidman, Cruise's ex-wife, performed a prerace concert), Oscar winner Hackman, 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Joey Galloway, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano.

The star power brought pizazz to a Speedweeks that was short on controversies, aside from Tony Stewart renewing his feud with Goodyear after a tire problem in the final practice.

The atmosphere inside the garage seemed marked as much by relief the season had started as anticipation of NASCAR's biggest event. The offseason was a brutal morass of job losses and team closings in a sport with strong ties to Corporate America that leave it more vulnerable to an economic downturn.

Industry estimates put the crewmember layoffs as high as 1,000, and the desertion of sponsorship money caused longtime organizations such as Petty Enterprises, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Bill Davis Racing – all of which had won the Daytona 500 – to merge or close.

The recession also has affected fans' bank accounts, and attendance was flat or down at the majority of tracks last season. Sunday's race wasn't a sellout, but fewer than 1,000 seats remained as of Friday.

"This is only a sport on 1-5 p.m. on Sunday afternoon," said Kyle Petty, whose absence marked the first time a Petty Enterprises car or driver named Petty wasn't in a Cup race. "The rest of the time it's a business. It's all about those people that have to buy a ticket, pay for a hotel room, buy fuel, buy food."
Kenseth didn't need any reminders after a "depressing" offseason in which his best friend lost a construction job.

He seemed as happy about scoring a victory that should resonate with NASCAR's middle-class fan base as he did in ending a 36-race winless streak. Kenseth, whose previous best finish in the Daytona 500 was ninth in 2004, has 17 Cup victories.

"Everyone is tired of watching the grim news from the winter," he said. "It's easy to take stuff for granted when everything is going good. It was a great race today."