ON NASCAR: After Fording The Streak, Kenseth Contends Again

By Cathy Elliott
ON NASCAR: After Fording The Streak, Kenseth Contends Again
 A NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race can seem to last a whole lot longer than 500 miles or laps when you’re losing.
Just ask Matt Kenseth, who experienced that feeling 76 races in a row.



After a winless season in 2008, Kenseth came back strong during the early part of 2009, winning the first two races of the year, at Daytona and California’s Auto Club Speedway.


That, unfortunately, was the high point of the year for the driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, who must have experienced first-hand the feeling actor Bill Murray famously verbalized in the movie “Stripes.”



After losing his car, his job, his girlfriend and his pizza, Murray’s character summed up his emotional state with five simple words – “And then, depression set in.” Kenseth completed the 2009 season without another win, and failed to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field for the first time since its inception in 2004. He went winless once again in 2010.



Just to rub a little more salt in the wound, Kenseth knows how it feels to be on top. He is a former Cup Series champion. He spent 35 of 36 weeks in the Top 10 in 2003, and was in the number one position for 33 of those weeks. He was so dominant that a lot of people believe his performance that year was a major factor in NASCAR’s decision to revamp the points system, giving us the Chase and creating much tighter championship battles.



For a superstar race car driver, a ‘career depression’ must surely be a bitter pill to swallow. You are still on the track, but somehow have gotten off-track. You can’t just back up and take some time to figure things out on your own, because you live under a combination of microscope and spotlight. You are responsible to, and for, a team, sponsors, and legions of loyal fans.



So it is only natural that at some point, you would begin to doubt yourself. Kenseth has admitted as much, saying, “After over two years, I didn't know if I'd get a chance to get here again.”



That remark, by the way, was made on April 9, 2011, when Kenseth answered his own burning question with the strongest of statements. He not only won the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, but dominated the race, effectively kicking the other competitors in the rear bumper. He led so many laps, in fact, that during the post-race press conference one writer, while asking a question over the press box microphone, actually referred to the win as “un-Kensethlike.”



Kenseth’s 17-year-old son Ross had a similar comment. “Yes!!! I guess the old man can still get up on the wheel!” he said via Twitter.



It is embarrassing but honest to admit that when we’re making our race picks each week, Matt Kenseth is probably not at the top of most lists. Yes, the Fords are running strong, and yes, after that race at Texas, Kenseth moved up to third place in the driver standings. But if we’re only allowed to pick one Ford driver, chances are most folks will go for someone who seems a little bit fresher, a little less hard-wired, and perhaps a little more comfortable with the trill and squawk of Twitter.



Kenseth’s own words seem to support this. As you start to get older and with the results and it's been over two years since we won. You can't help but think, "’Is this the way it's going to go? Are we going to keep trickling backwards?’" he said at Texas.



This seems like an appropriate time to invoke three words you rarely hear in NASCAR: Not so fast.



In the words of 10-time World Series champion Yogi Berra and in the song of the same name by another pop icon, Lenny Kravitz, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Matt Kenseth is only 39 years old. He has a very realistic, and seemingly successful, self-diagnosis for surviving a NASCAR career depression, saying “I think anybody that does this job and does it with any kind of success and has been here very long has to have the ability to block things out and focus on the task at hand, or things that might be bothering you … and concentrating 100 percent on your job and the car, how to make it faster and how to get the best finish out of the day and all that type of stuff, is certainly very important.”



As fans, sometimes we display an unfortunate tendency to just write off our favorite teams or players when they seem to be slipping a bit, when the cracks of age and experience start to show.



In racing, a better way to look at things might be to consider experienced but still competitive drivers as being like NASCAR bridges, crucial links in a system that holds the sport together and moves it forward into new territory. An awful lot of aspiring superstars have to cross those bridges – which include Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., just to name a few – before they can advance to the other side and continue the journey.



It could prove to be a tough task. “The thing that makes you a good race car driver is fast race cars,” Kenseth said. “I’ve felt better the last six months. It feels like we’re back into contending form.”



It definitely ain’t over yet.

Cathy Elliott, the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” (for David M. Kinchen's review on this site:http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/100423-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html). Contact Cathy atcathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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