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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Matt Kenseth saga proves drivers are as human as we are

I’ve been watching Matt Kenseth race for a long time.

Back in 1997, when I first got into NASCAR, when he was still struggling to succeed while driving for Robbie Reiser in a Kraft-sponsored car, I picked Kenseth as my driver while my buddy rooted for Dale Earnhardt Jr. We spent a couple fun years rooting for our drivers and seeing who would finish better.

I watched a young Kenseth knock a young Tony Stewart out of the way in 1998 at Rockingham to take his first Busch Series win. Then I watched Kenseth and Jr. wage some tight battles for the championship, with Jr. coming out on top both times.

I rooted Kenseth on as he had an awesome year in 2003, dominating the points race en route to a title … which created enough backlash that the Chase system was created to tighten the points up at the end of the season. Since then, he’s had some good years, but never came close to title glory again.

Last week, a truly bizarre story emerged about Kenseth, who changed crew chiefs after only one race … a race where he finished 8th.

My first reaction was simply: Huh?

An article in Sports Illustrated painted a portrait of Kenseth that surprised me.

He was described as morose and pessimistic, and apparently his attitude in tough times is much like a certain donkey that lives in the Hundred Acre Wood with a bear named Pooh.
“Kenseth's deadpan sarcasm can be hilarious at times, but when he's slumping it comes with a nitpicky criticism that has him earning the nickname Eeyore -- the morose donkey from Winnie The Pooh,” the article reads.

That’s a nice way of saying Kenseth is a real downer who doesn’t exactly rise to the occasion by leading and lifting the mood when times are tough.

Just one year ago, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and Kenseth were the dynamic duo, having won the first two races of the year. Unfortunately, the rest of the year went south in a hurry, and Kenseth ended up just barely missing the Chase (though based on the year, it’s unlikely he would have been a factor.)

So it appears all was not well with the Blicksenderfer-Kenseth relationship, and it’s worth noting that the departure of longtime crew chief Reiser probably has a lot to do with it. Those two had such a history together (former competitors who ended up working together all the way to a title) that it’s hard to replace that kind of relationship.

What I take out of this whole thing is that despite these drivers being millionaires and in our minds made of stone, sometimes the pressure gets to them, just as our jobs may get to us and throw us off our game.

Kenseth is a Cup champion, and has achieved many things in this life that others can only dream of. He has won the Daytona 500 and dozens of other races at the top levels of NASCAR over the past decades … plus he has a wife and family he cares about, and tons of adoring fans. That’s not a shabby resume.

Despite all this, just like any of us, he let last year’s struggles get to him, and this cloud of negativity influenced his year in a way that led to a lower level of success in 2009. Too often, I believe, fans look at these drivers as stars and neglect to realize they are people who might be going through the same crazy range of emotions we all experience.

Because of this melancholy mood he was setting, and the apparent mismatch with Blickensderfer, he wanted change, and it came very early in the year (and probably should have come last fall, it appears).

Here’s hoping that whatever 2010 brings, the mood brightens on the #17 team. Kenseth is still a talented driver capable of competing for titles, and has a long successful career ahead of him if he wants it.

With all he’s accomplished in his career and all the blessings he has in his life, he has no reason to be morose.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a bad article. Kenseth did come close to a championship again though, in 2006 when he finished second to... Jimmie Johnson. Hard to beat that guy these days...

As far as his mood... I think the problem is that Matt is not content to run poorly, and Drew wasn't seeming to be as motivated to make sure they were doing all they could. Like Matt said, they needed someone who would rile the crew up, and Drew is just too laid back to do that. Matt certainly isn't one to do that, so it left the team leaderless. Hopefully, Todd Parrot is the guy who can get it done.

February 23, 2010 at 10:07 AM 
Blogger Kevin said...

I'm suprised Jack would put up with that without stepping in & getting Matt back on track.

February 25, 2010 at 9:17 PM 

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