Spotlight still doesn't focus easily on Kenseth

But Cup's quiet champion gets his due in N.Y. tonight

Auto Racing

December 05, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The city is dressed for celebration this time of year and, at the fashionable 21 Club, guests passed a large Christmas tree as they entered the restaurant.

A fire blazed in the fireplace, and the staff was eager to help Winston Cup champion Matt Kenseth store his coat and find his way to the dining room, where he was to meet the media for lunch.

But a funny thing happened as introductions were being made at the luncheon. The master of ceremonies introduced car owner Jack Roush and crew chief Robbie Reiser, who both got up and said a few words. And then the speaker told the attendees to enjoy their lunch.

A few minutes later, the host was back on his feet, red-faced.

"I forgot to introduce the champion," he said. "Here's Matt Kenseth."

Kenseth rather enjoyed the situation, drawing a connection to his Winston Cup career.

"He's not the first one to forget about me," said Kenseth, who will be honored at the Winston Cup Championship Awards dinner tonight at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

In fact, until he clinched the championship in Rockingham, N.C., with one race left in the season, he was still an afterthought on most Sundays.

In 2002, he won five races, more than anyone else. And this season he had rolled up so many points, he could afford to lose nearly 200 of them with a last-place finish in the final race of the season in Homestead, Fla., and still have a 90-point, series-winning margin over runner-up Jimmie Johnson.

But the soft-spoken man from Wisconsin won only one race this season, which worked against generating much notice.

Kenseth, who is sponsored by Towson-based tool manufacturer DeWalt Industries, led the points race a series-record 33 consecutive weeks.

The Roush-owned team never blinked, rolling up 25 top 10 finishes and 11 top fives. While other competitors experienced the frustrating highs and lows of racing, the No. 17 Ford team was rock-solid the whole way.

"We learned so much in 2002," Kenseth said. "It didn't feel like a championship team. We had things we had to learn, and it was important for us to win all those races because it created confidence, taught us to expect the unexpected, taught us how to stay calm and set us up for this season.

"This year, even in February, after finishing 20th in the Daytona 500, it felt right. We followed Daytona with a third at Rockingham and then won in Las Vegas and we just stayed consistent from there. Even on a bad day, we were able to finish in the top five."

It was a road map to the championship. But in a pre-luncheon conversation, Kenseth didn't sound as if he were resting on his title.

"I'm already thinking about next season," he said. "I want to win more races. I haven't won since March, and it gets to be like you're dehydrated and you're dying for that drink."

Kenseth, 31, began racing as a 13-year-old when his father, Roy, a movie theater owner in Cambridge, Wis., offered him a deal. Roy would buy a race car and drive it if his son would work on it. Matt jumped at the opportunity, and when he turned 16, he became the driver.

Growing up with racing takes a toll, though. Kenseth said he never went to a homecoming or a prom. He played basketball only as a freshman and missed out totally on playing football, something he still regrets.

"I've always loved football and still do," said Kenseth, a Green Bay Packers fan. "I just wish I'd been able to try that."

He said he was never a great student, though he enjoyed geometry and shop classes - they helped him with his work as a mechanic on his dad's race car. It wasn't until this week that he wished he had paid more attention to history.

That's because Kenseth and his fellow top 10 drivers were entertained at the White House on Tuesday. Kenseth's championship car and several others were parked on the South Lawn, and he got to spend more than an hour with President Bush.

"I'd never been to Washington," Kenseth said. "It was impressive taking a tour of the Capitol , seeing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and then going to the White House.

"President Bush seemed like just a normal guy. He's either a really intense Winston Cup fan or he has a really good researcher; he knew something specific about all of us.

"And, it was really something when he took us into the Oval Office. It was something I'll never forget, and it made me wish I understood how politics work."

Kenseth and Reiser, his crew chief, said they certainly feel more like champions after their White House visit and their week in New York.

And they should feel it even more tonight at the Waldorf, where the No. 17 team will be wearing black tuxedoes with bright yellow ties in honor of their sponsor.

When the time comes, no one will have forgotten to introduce Matt Kenseth. And he will move to the microphone, look out over the crowd and say what's in his heart.

"Mainly," he said, "I just want to thank everyone who helped me get where I am today."

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