Jeff Gluck, NASCAR Scene
Emotionless, robotic, boring. This is Matt Kenseth. He is, after all, Mr. Consistency. Not just on the track, but off it.
Kenseth is steady and predictable, a man who speaks with a rapid cadence while often not saying much at all. He stays out of the spotlight, shows little personality and reveals his humor in only the driest of manners.
But if all that is true, how to explain what looked like a quivering lip, damp eyes and a voice shaking with emotion?
Ladies and gentlemen, Matt Kenseth does have a heart. And it beats inside the 2009 Daytona 500 champion.
Can the Tin Man weep? It was hard to see whether Kenseth’s cheeks were moistened by teardrops or raindrops.
“It’s gonna be really wet out here,” he said after being declared the winner of the rain-shortened race, “because I’m crying like a baby.”
And with good reason. It was a day that never seemed to be Kenseth’s until opportunity and Mother Nature combined to give him one shot at making a race-winning pass on Elliott Sadler before the skies opened for good; a race when Kenseth was piloting an unproven backup car for a crew chief calling his first career Cup race, for an owner who had never won NASCAR’s biggest race despite trying for more than two decades.
Given all that, and the year-long winless streak hanging above his head, it’s no wonder even Kenseth was overwhelmed.
“I actually am a pretty emotional guy, you guys just don’t always see it,” he said.
Always? How about ever? The only people less likely to scream and yell than Kenseth are mimes.
And yet, there was Kenseth, shrieking “RAIN! RAIN! RAIN! RAIN!” at the top of his lungs over the team radio when the caution flag came out at lap 145, less than two miles after he had taken the lead for the first time.
Rookie crew chief Drew Blickensderfer was so surprised, he nearly fell off the pit box.
“From nowhere, I heard a Matt Kenseth scream,” Blickensderfer said. “It’s very uncharacteristic of him.”
The next words out of Kenseth’s mouth, after a brief discussion about the size of the raindrops, was the pronouncement, “I’m just trying to stay calm here and be patient.”
“I think that was him catching himself,” Blickensderfer said. “He’s so calm and cool and ice cold that you don’t usually have to say anything to Matt to calm him down.”
When the cars were pulled off the track six laps later due to rain – Kenseth technically led just one lap under the green flag – the 36-year-old former Cup champion decided to remain in his car while other drivers got out and walked away.
As it turned out, it was his version of an emotional restrictor plate.
“I didn’t want to let my emotions get too high one way or another,” he said. “I just kind of wanted to wait till it was over and then go from there.”
After only a short wait, it was indeed over. The rain that had been threatening and creeping up on the Daytona Beach area all afternoon finally presented itself, turning the Daytona 500 into the Daytona 380.
It may have been one of the shortest 500s ever, but it capped an excruciating wait for team owner Jack Roush.
“We’ve been here for more than 20 years trying to do this thing,” Roush said. “I will be black and blue for the next couple of days from pinching myself just to make sure I’m not dreaming.”
For others, NASCAR’s Super Bowl was simply a nightmare.
Sadler, the veteran driver who lost his job in the offseason only to get it back by threatening a lawsuit, rode on brilliant pit strategy – and very old tires – to the front of the field and stayed there for 24 laps.
He was in excellent position to pull off an unlikely feel-good story – albeit one that would have been credited to great fortune – as the radar filled with dark green and yellow.
But the rain wasn’t there when he needed it, and he guessed incorrectly on which way Kenseth would try to pass. With runnerup Kevin Harvick in tow, Kenseth zoomed past Sadler on the inside of Turn 1. When a wreck occurred on the backstretch behind the leaders just a half-lap later, the race was effectively over due to the impending rain.
“If I would have made a better and smarter move, I’d be in victory lane right now,” Sadler said, slumped forward and resting his cheek on one hand. “Really wanted it ... Very hard to swallow. Very emotional.”
The same might be said for Kyle Busch, who said he had “just a really sad feeling” after the lapped cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers set off a jaw-dropping wreck, collecting him and several other top contenders. Each driver blamed the other for the incident, but the result completely changed several fates – none moreso than Busch, who easily led the most laps (88 of the 152) and said he was “100 percent” sure he was en route to victory lane.
But the man who ultimately ended up as the Daytona 500 champion said he never thought it could actually happen until it did. And he cried.