Clinton, S.C., Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 6:28 p.m.
Here at home, there are certain things one misses. Watch TV, he can do. Go through emails. Catch the Twitter high points, and read some links. What one misses are the winks and nods.
Matt Kenseth winks and nods better than anyone in NASCAR. If teammate Kyle Busch is Penn, Kenseth is Teller. He speaks but not to excess. His expressions often communicate as much as his words. His words, though, are important. He’s the guy who sits around listening to everyone else shooting the breeze, then makes one comment that leaves them laughing. He’s even more economical in a race car. No one is better at getting the best out of his car. If he’s fastest, he wins. If he’s 10th fastest, he finishes fifth.
Kenseth, the 2003 Winston Cup champion, is likely going to make the Chase for what has been, ever since, the Sprint Cup. He can guarantee it with a victory, but he’s a lot more secure than those among his peers who can only guarantee it with a victory. Marcos Ambrose has a lot riding on Watkins Glen, the only track where he has won. Tony Stewart must win somewhere; Kasey Kahne, too; and Kyle Larson, the rookie starting at Pocono Raceway on the pole; and Greg Biffle and many others, and, even though a record sixteen are going to be allowed in the Chase, this format, like any that is reasonable, will result in absences that are glaring.
Lots of drivers plead ignorance when asked about controversial issues. So does Kenseth. The difference between him and others is that people believe him. He might actually ignore items that don’t concern him. Lots of racers are gossipy. Kenseth could run a security firm.
It’s hard to imagine him panicking. He still needs a victory. He won a career-best seven in 2013 and thirteen in the past three seasons. He is forty-two. One always hears Stewart cited as forty-three, and it’s widely known that Jeff Gordon reaches that age on Monday.
It’s as if Kenseth doesn’t have an age. He has a state, Wisconsin. He has a football team, the Green Bay Packers. He has a lovely wife, Katie, and kids.
When asked not too long ago if he felt an extra sense of urgency, Kenseth sounded as if he didn’t know what urgency was. He does. He just hasn’t allowed himself to experience it.
“I think the biggest sense of urgency is that we know as an organization (Joe Gibbs Racing) we need to be running better,” he said. “We’re not running as good as we did last year as a group. We’re not leading as many laps, sitting on as many poles, winning as many races. … We need to get that better.”
Naturally, being Matt Kenseth, he doesn’t have any concern about the new Chase format. This is a guy who comes to work and does his job. He has no need for a lunch box, but it wouldn’t look out of place.
“If we could win every week, we would,” he said. “Just to have ‘a sense of urgency’ about it doesn’t really do any good. We’re already working as hard as we can. … [We] keep trying to get our cars faster, keep trying to get in position to win, and if you can put yourself in that spot enough times, sooner or later, you’ll get one.”
Kenseth is uncommon in sport and an anomaly in this one. He is calm in general, and, in a car, at speed, even calmer. Among his peers, he is calmest.
“One of the keys to the sport, I’ve always thought, is to try to control the peaks and valleys,” he said. “When things are going great, try not to be too high, and when things are going bad, try not to be too low. You’ve got to keep it somewhere in the center.”
Rudyard Kipling began a famous poem, “If,” by writing, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you …”
Wonder if Matt Kenseth’s dad knew that poem?