There’s the Rub … That Wasn’t

Kasey Kahne (5) races side-by-side with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (HHP/Rusty Jarrett photo for Chevrolet)

Kasey Kahne (5) races side-by-side with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (HHP/Rusty Jarrett photo for Chevrolet)

[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.”

Matt Kenseth speaks softly, too, but he's been known to to mix it up when conditions require it. (John Clark photo)

Matt Kenseth speaks softly, too, but he’s been known to to mix it up when conditions require it. (John Clark photo)

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.

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About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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13 Responses to There’s the Rub … That Wasn’t

  1. frank says:

    Well Monty, you know Anne has already put in the papers to nominate him for sainthood.

  2. JD says:

    Excellent article Monte. Kahne mentioned as much as he wanted to win, he also needed a top finish to enhance his Chase position. If he didn’t already have 2 wins, he might have given Kenseth that bump and run deal for a second win. But, as you say, that’s not Kasey.

  3. Andy DeNardi says:

    You have to wonder if Kenseth’s talent was being held back by Roush or if he’s just motivated again because it’s all new. I think it’s motivation, but you know that Matt’s success is making Edwards wonder if he should have left Roush two years ago when he had the chance. And there’s all those years that Mark Martin came close but couldn’t pull it off. If I were a free-agent driver, Roush would be my backup school instead of my first choice.

    Always liked Matt, hope he can get another championship this year. But a champion driving a Toyota? That’s not going to go over easy among NASCAR fans. If it were Kyle Busch, folks would be free to hate on him but Matt has fewer solid enemies.

  4. Tim Krantz says:

    He’s following in Mark Martins shoes,being the nice guy. I suppose it is why He won’t be a champion. A great racer,but not champion.

  5. Tony Geinzer says:

    What would be worse than JJ or Another Hendrick Employee Monopolizing Park Place and Other NASCAR Company Time is Matt Kenseth being Aided and Abetted by his “Get Out Of Prison Free” Card out of Roush and into Smoke’s Old Car, Just as bad as she ever was. But, let’s throw rocks at this funkadelical game they call the Chase and Say They Did!

  6. Rusty says:

    It’s nice to see Kenseth experience a bit of a career re-surgence..not that he was ever down in the dumps per se, but purely in terms of wins and finishes this is one of his best seasons in a while. Nobody doubts that Kenseth is an elite talent, so this year’s performance almost leaves raises more questions than anything – has Roush racing fallen a bit behind the curve on their technology? Or is Gibbs’ equipment so good that if you put a world class talent like Matt in the seat, the wins are going to come? While we don’t know everything that does into the decision making process, Jack has to wonder if he made the right call letting Kenseth go. I realize he needs to think about the future of his race team and make sure the Stenhouses and Trevor Bayne’s of the world get their shot, and that’s hard to do with a limited pool of sponorship dollars.
    Kasey made the right call at the end of the Bristol race – if you’re points racing (which he is) then trying to move somebody out of the way to win can blow up in your face big time if something goes wrong. I also agree with the author that it’s generally not in Kahne’s nature to move people, anyway. I’d have been more surprised had, say, Kurt Busch or Harvick said something like that. You can argue that this is yet another drawback of having the Chase – it essentially ruined the fun and drama of the Bristol night race.

  7. Monte says:

    Teams rise and fall, Childress and Roush being more erratic that some others. I wouldn’t count Jack out just yet.

  8. Sal says:

    While I can admire the rectitude, it just might be that Kasey follows in Mark Martin’s shoes as the best, nicest driver never to win a title.

  9. J. Bosworth Carruthers, Esq. says:

    I think I understand what “funkadelical” means. The rest of it just flew right by me.

  10. Andy DeNardi says:

    Your shift lock key may be broken.

  11. Andy DeNardi says:

    I’m disappointed that so many feel you have to play dirty to get to the top. That’s what ruined American manufacturing and Wall Street. David Pearson drove clean and won three championships.

  12. Monte says:

    As far as “best never to win a title,” there’s plenty of competition: Junior Johnson (as a driver, that is), Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, et al.

  13. Monte says:

    Pearson won three of the four titles he went for (3rd in ’64, 1st in 1966, ’68, ’69).

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