David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Last Days At Roush No Laughing Matter For Kenseth
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Matt Kenseth had barely settled into his seat – one of the white rocking chairs that provides a resting spot for visitors touring the NASCAR Hall of Fame – when he began firing away.
"What's with the rocking chairs?" the winner of last Sunday's event at Talladega Superspeedway inquired. "You have to be old to be in the Hall of Fame, since it's like a museum? So you give us rocking chairs?"
Winston Kelley, the shrine's executive director, tried to explain things, as he would do so many times Tuesday throughout the 20-minute question-and-answer session with fans inside the building's Great Hall. But he knew he was overmatched. "Trying to get into a battle of wits with him," he said, nodding toward Kenseth, "is like taking a knife to a gunfight. You know you're going to lose."
And indeed, Kenseth was in rare form during his visit to the downtown Charlotte facility, showing once again why there are few Sprint Cup drivers with a sharper wit than the seemingly soft-spoken 2003 series champion. This is, after all, the same guy who when once asked on Twitter which driver less than 25 years old would be first to win a title, replied Jeff Gordon's son, Leo. Who when asked at a Champions Week event last year in Las Vegas which driver he wouldn't want his daughter to date, replied Danica Patrick. Who on Tuesday saw an empty row of media seats and joked that all his favorite reporters had shown up – and then spotted the real ones standing in the back of the room.
"I'm kind of worried," he told Kelley, "because I saw the media chairs and made that crack, and I just saw them all standing back there all tweeting and texting. I love them guys, I do."
It's hard not to love Kenseth, particularly when he's at his deadpan best, playing the straight man who gets all the laughs. "I thought I was the only one who thought I was funny," he said later to his favorite media members. Perhaps more than any other driver, Kenseth has benefited from a Twitter presence (@mattkenseth) that allows him to toss out one devastatingly funny one-liner after another, and show off another side of his personality. Most of the feedback he gets is positive, he said, although all it takes is one negative response for him to think about shutting it down.
"Which is really bad, because it's been a good outlet for me," he said. Not to mention a great source of amusement for those who follow him. Case in point: Sunday, he was asked by a follower if all the people partying in the Talladega infield kept him awake at night. "Just Katie," he responded, referring to his wife.
So yeah, the guy is funny, and during his Hall of Fame appearance he interspersed his sense of humor among more serious answers. Would he ever drive in a sports-car event? "Have you seen me on road courses?" he asked in retort. What would happen to Sprint Cup cars at Talladega if there were no restrictor plates? "When you had a wreck like [Sunday's]," he said, "they'd probably land pretty close to Birmingham." He was offered congratulations on his son, Ross, who won a prominent super late-model event during the weekend in Nashville, Tenn. "By the way, don't ever aspire to become car owner," said Matt, who owns Ross' car. "Being the driver is way better."
But if you want Kenseth to turn serious, switch the subject to his looming departure from Roush Fenway Racing, the only team he's competed for since moving up to NASCAR's top division. Sure, he can find humor in the awkwardness of his lame-duck status – being with Roush teammates and seeing his future Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief is "kind of walking with your girlfriend and saying, 'By the way, I'm going to start dating her in three months,' " he said – but the legacy of his No. 17 program is no laughing matter. Jack Roush may own the team, but during the past 13 years Kenseth has steered it, shaped it and overseen it to a large degree on his own. Which is why Sunday's victory was so important, especially after such a strong regular season, and especially after such a rotten start to the Chase.
"The way things were going, I could tell everybody was getting real close to being at each others' throats. Not with me, but with themselves, internally on my team, the company onto my team. And man, that would just break my heart if that thing fell apart when I left and then Ricky started there, and maybe all the guys weren't there. I just want to leave that thing as good as I can. It was really important to me, and it still is," said Kenseth, who will be succeeded in the No. 17 car by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
"It's just six weeks, and things could go good or they could go bad. But that win was really cool for them guys, and it really meant a lot to me, and I think it meant a lot to them, too. That's probably one of the most important things with me leaving, is to leave it running good. Maybe they don't feel good about you leaving, but they know you gave it your all, and you're trying, and they're trying, and we're getting some results, so you're not getting that, 'Oh, he's not trying so he doesn't care anymore,' or, 'They're not giving him good stuff because they don't care anymore.' Because that team has way too much integrity and pride for that."
His title hopes admittedly are a long shot, given that even after his Talladega victory, Kenseth remains last in the Chase standings, 62 points back. The whole Roush team has seemed to take a step backward in speed at the worst possible time, perhaps because it was too late catching on to the yaw setups that Hendrick Motorsports began using in midsummer. There have been other issues, too – at Chicagoland the No. 17 team inexcusably squandered a practice session because it couldn't figure out how to bolt some pieces to the car, and then Kenseth lost a shock mid-race because someone forgot to tighten a bolt. Two weeks later at Dover, his track bar broke in what later proved a company-wide problem.
"It's hard to not lose your mind. But if you take a few minutes and a few deep breaths and think about it, I think you need to think, 'How do I make this better?' Screaming at somebody or yelling at somebody or getting someone fired or ridiculing ... is that going to make it better? What's going to make it better?" Kenseth asked.
"I really think that's what we've been trying to do as a group, and there's only so much I can control over that. But I think we've done a pretty good job of that. There have been some tense situations and there have been some meetings and I had to get some people kind of fired up last week, and I kind of had some people not too happy with me for a day, but they figured it out, and we did it the right way and were constructive about it, and all the same people are still there and we're all still working toward a common goal. And I think at the end of the day, I think they all understand and probably respect you more for that."
Clearly, he wants to leave the No. 17 team in as good a shape as it's been for most of his tenure there. But now only a few more weeks remain, and then it's off to Gibbs, and what Kenseth believes may yet be the best days of his career. Odds are, he'll continue to contend for race wins and championships when he slides behind the wheel of his new No. 20 car next season. Just as long as he promises to bring his famous sense of humor along with him.
"Depends on the mood I'm in, I guess," Kenseth said. "Depends on if I'm comfortable or not. I'm feeling really uncomfortable right now. I'm not going to joke anymore."
He delivered the line without even cracking a smile. All that was missing was the rim-shot.