[cb_profit_poster Travel1]Clinton, S.C., Sunday, August 25, 2013, 1:25 p.m.
When it came “right down to it” on Saturday night, and the Irwin Tools Night Race was “there for the taking,” Matt Kenseth won it because he was capable of what one football coach, Jake Gaither, said about another, Bear Bryant.
“He can take his’n and beat your’n,” said Gaither*, “or he can take your’n and beat his’n.”
Gaither was a big fan of versatility. He also said, “I like my boys to be agile, mobile and hostile.”
He would’ve been a big fan of Kenseth, who as one of NASCAR’s prodigious talents, can operate his race car a variety of ways. Kenseth is widely admired, soft-spoken and impishly funny, but once the green flag waves, he can play it any way the opposition wants. Many drivers talk about the notion that “I race the other fellow the same way he races me,” but Kenseth is probably the best example of that theory in operation.
As much as Kasey Kahne has talked this year about being the mysterious victim of Joe Gibbs’ rampaging band of Toyotas, when the gladiators all got done at Bristol Motor Speedway’s self-described “Colosseum” (as in Rome, where them Eye-talians are), Kahne couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger, that Kenseth would have, had the roles been reversed.
There’s no dishonor in that. Many of Kahne’s fans value him for his very decency. Kahne’s reputation is right out of the movies of the 1950s. It’s not unusual for fans to walk away from a meet ‘n’ greet with Kahne saying to anyone who will listen, “What a swell guy.”
And, by the way, the two drivers did mix it up a bit. From watching, the case could have been made that Kahne’s timing was off and that he might’ve tried the old bump ‘n’ run on Kenseth had he gotten there in time.
The reason this angle wasn’t explored more was Kahne’s own admission regarding what happened.
“I had already tried to clear [Kenseth] on a slide-job-type deal,” Kahne said, “and he just didn’t brake and stayed in the gas, and we were going to hit each other. I don’t know how all that was going to work out. I needed a win bad, but I also needed a finish, and I just didn’t do anything crazy. I just basically ran as hard as I could, tried to pass him two different times and ran on his bumper and hoped he’d screw up, and he really never did.”
As soon as the post-race interrogators established that Kahne was sane (he didn’t want to do anything crazy), they went to work on “the principled angle.” Kahne had “cemented his reputation as a clean racer.”
“Seems that way,” Kahne said. “You know, I’ve always really raced that way. I don’t have any experience doing it [dirty] for one, and, for two, that’s just kind of how I’ve always raced.”
Kahne could’ve growled that he’d have wrecked the sonuvabitch if he could have, but Kahne didn’t, and the idea of him growling is almost unimaginable. A Kahne growl might be a Tony Stewart … whisper.
In essence, Kahne is just incapable of being someone he’s not. He excels in a world of tough guys with chips on their shoulders by merely being proficient. He is NASCAR’s Clark Kent, mild-mannered right up until he swoops airward from the telephone booth. He speaks so softly that he could read The Communist Manifesto to the Tea Party, and the audience would merely smile and nod.
When I read Kahne’s final words in the transcript – “I think, at the end of the day, I just don’t wreck people” – I thought to myself, But, Kasey, the end of the day was already past. This was the Bristol night race.
My guess is that Kahne fans were, by and large, disappointed but proud. They expected their hero to be virtuous. Yes, it was “a moral victory.”
Other fans slapped their thighs and scoffed at the existence of anything as high-minded and noble as a moral victory. No such thing! Kenseth hung on steadfastly. He did what it took to win. If I’ve heard this sentence once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: That’s part of it!
No one’s right, and no one’s wrong. These are issues racers and fans must decide for themselves.
*This quotation is often cited as Bum Phillips talking about Don Shula, but Gaither said it first about Bryant.
I thoroughly enjoyed the race. For several years, I’ve written that Bristol could use a break, and I think Saturday night offered just the kind of race the track needed. But I just speak for me, and I’m always interested in your comments. I appreciate your support, and if you disagree, I appreciate that, too.