DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Matt Kenseth is not boring or bland. Get to know him a bit, and one might find he’s actually rather funny.
Sure, he’s a bit quiet in a crowd. But the driver with a dry wit is also calm, consistent and a very classy NASCAR champion. He just won’t sell any tickets.
That’s the conundrum NASCAR faces following Kenseth’s win in Sunday’s rain-shortened Daytona 500. It was a popular victory inside the garage, where the 2003 NASCAR champion is regarded as one of the good guys.
Outside of that bubble, though, Kenseth is no threat to challenge Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s reign as most popular driver. Fans will never root against him the way they do Kyle Busch, and, it’s a good bet unproven 18-year-old Joey Logano will draw more interest than the well-established Kenseth.
And interest is what NASCAR needs more than anything, particularly as it moves into the less-than-enthusiastic Los Angeles market this week.
A thrilling Daytona 500 finish and a dynamic winner would have been akin to a winning lottery ticket for Gillian Zucker, who try as she might just can’t catch a break as president of beleaguered Auto Club Speedway. Give her Junior, Jeff or Jimmie to parade through her market all week, she might be able to move some tickets.
Instead she’s got Kenseth, a guy so steely that the rare emotion he showed after the victory likely will be the lasting image of this year’s race.
It isn’t fair, though, for anyone to be disappointed by Kenseth’s victory or the anticlimactic end to NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
Calling the race 115 miles short of completion was not ideal for anyone, particularly for a sanctioning body desperately needing a strong kickoff to the season after months of economic turmoil. NASCAR, despite the strong health of the overall organization, is saddled with a “the sky is falling” perception because the economic crisis has hit some independent team owners harder than others.
The only stimulus package worth anything is on the track, where good, hard racing can cure most ills.
That’s what people got Sunday – at least for 152 laps. Everyone knew all week that rain would threaten the big event, so the entire day was a race against Mother Nature. The 3:40 p.m. EST start time left people standing around waiting for the action and wondering why, if the rain was coming, weren’t they racing while it was still dry?
When the green flag finally fell, it became a race to the halfway point that makes it an official event. The racing was calm, with drivers just trying to avoid trouble the first 100 laps. Then it got interesting. Whoever was leading when the rain came had an excellent chance of claiming the $1.5 million grand prize.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., down a lap because two mental errors in the pits had taken him out of contention, had to turn it up a notch to have a shot at victory. It led to an aggressive jostling for position with Brian Vickers that triggered a nine-car accident that collected Busch, who had led a race-high 88 laps.
It took NASCAR less than 20 minutes to call it, because officials knew it would rain for at least an hour and take three hours beyond that to dry the track.
So that’s how Kenseth won his first Daytona 500, and why everyone but him felt a little flat following the race.