I think there are a couple of conceptions, images if you will, that a lot of fans and media members share about Matt Kenseth.
He seems intelligent but rather quiet. He’s friendly but certainly not all that outgoing. He doesn’t make waves, carelessly call attention to himself or ignite controversies.
As a race car driver he’s a noted talent, a winner and a past champion. His style is not overly aggressive, something that has served others well and enhanced their reputations.
Oh, but Kenseth is most effective. For the most part he is cold and calculating. Many times during the course of a race he is practically invisible. Then, at the crucial finish he’s there; he’s a contender and sometimes he’s victorious.
He’s like a German U-boat in the North Atlantic during World War II. Allied ships didn’t hear or see it until it was too late.
Well, that might be stretching it a bit, metaphorically.
I’ve heard of a nickname given him – “The Silent Assassin.” Sounds like a B-movie, but hey, he might like it.
It will be a bit difficult for Kenseth to avoid attention, especially from the media, for the remainder of the season.
That’s because he’s a lame duck driver for a team that could win this year’s championship. He’s announced that he will end his 14-year relationship with Roush Fenway Racing and compete with a new team in 2013.
We don’t know which team it will be. Kenseth does.
That Kenseth is moving on is one of those very surprising splits that happen between star drivers and their winning teams.
They may be rare, but they most certainly happened: Petty departs Petty Enterprises, Darrell Waltrip leaves Junior Johnson and Associates, the vastly successful David Pearson-Wood Brothers association breaks down early in a season – and more.
I think one other reason that Kenseth’s exit announcement was so unexpected is that many of us thought he would be glued to Jack Roush’s hip for the remainder of his career.
After all, the 40-year-old driver from Wisconsin stared his NASCAR career with Roush. Their association appeared rock solid – to some, a father-son thing – and it was certainly successful.
Kenseth won the 2003 championship in Roush Fords and earned 22 victories, including this year’s Daytona 500.
Back at Daytona for Saturday’s Coke Zero 400, Kenseth has a chance to become the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to sweep both Daytona races in a single season.
But, assuredly, while he prepares for the race he’ll be asked questions about how it feels to race with a team he will depart.
Let’s get one thing straight. Even in a lame duck situation, Kenseth and Roush are going to race hard for victories and another championship.
Given that Kenseth is currently No. 1 in points, and has been for five weeks, to do any less would be foolish – no, make that stupid.
Even so, the situation has created changes, even if subtle ones.
“There are certain things that are a little awkward at Roush because you know you are not going to be there next year and they know that,” Kenseth said. “But I think you just work through that.
“Maybe it’s a little bit different walking in and talking to Jack or doing some of that other stuff, but, again, you just work through that.”
Kenseth agreed that he, and his team, could do no less than their best. The potential rewards are too great.
“We are going to go out and try to race as hard as we can to the end of the year,” Kenseth said. “We are going to try to, hopefully, win more races and have a shot at winning the championship.
“That’s what it has always been about and that’s what it is still all about.”
Kenseth will certainly be listed as a favorite for this weekend’s race because of his February victory and that, lately, Ford has seemed to exhibit newly found strength in restrictor-plate races. It has won the last three races at Daytona.
“You have to have fast cars and at Daytona, the cars seem to have more to do with your success than at some of the other tracks,” Kenseth said. “So you have got to have that at plate tracks.
“We’ve had that so far at plate races. Hopefully our car will run like it did the last two weeks and we’ll be fast enough to work out to the front and, hopefully, stay there.”
Kenseth knows that he is a bit more high profile now than at almost any other time in his past. And there are reasons for that: He’s this season’s Daytona 500 winner. He’s leading the point standings. And he’s leaving Roush.
Things like that tend to call attention to a driver.
“I honestly don’t know where to go with all that,” Kenseth said. “I didn’t know I was going to be any more high profile or low profile than I am today.
“I think we’ve had a pretty super year winning he 500 and I think I’ve had a pretty good run with Roush Fenway as well, so I don’t know what all that means.”
Even with success and the now-existing undercurrent of change, do not expect Kenseth to become a different man – or, for that matter, a different driver.
He’s been around – and been who he is – far too long for that to happen.
“I’m a different guy away from the track than at the track,” Kenseth said. “I’ve been here since 2000 and I’ve been the same guy ever since, so I think most people probably know who I am and who I’m not.
“I don’t think that’s going to change next year. I am not, all of a sudden, going to change after all these years.”