From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, February 23, 2009
MATT KENSETH IS A WORRIER. SINCE THE EARLIEST DAYS OF HIS racing career, on those teenage Saturday nights on the short tracks of his native Wisconsin, Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, has always found something to fret over. Should he change two tires or four on this pit stop? Does he have enough fuel to make it to the finish? On the eve of the 51st running of the Daytona 500, what ate at Kenseth was his 36-race winless streak. "I'm tired of not being a contender anymore," Kenseth, 36, told his wife, Katie. "I'm tired of not winning. Maybe I'm starting to lose it."
Or maybe not. On Lap 146 of 200 in the Feb 15 night race, with storm clouds approaching the speedway carrying the rain that had been expected all day, Kenseth sped along the frontstretch at 190 mph behind leader Elliott Sadler. Kenseth's crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, had radioed his driver minutes earlier telling him that bad weather was imminent and that it was time to test the limits of his car. Kenseth did. After following Sadler on the high line into Turn 1, he dove low and received a push from the 2007 winner, Kevin Harvick, which thrust Kenseth past Sadler and into the lead. Moments later Aric Almirola, running amid heavy traffic back in the pack, spun into the infield, sending up the caution flag. Raindrops then started falling on the 2.5-mile speedway, and NASCAR ordered the cars onto pit road.
For 17 minutes Kenseth sat behind the wheel of his number 17 Roush Fenway DeWalt Ford, unsure, as the rain drummed on the roof, whether the race was over. This wasn't how he had envisioned winning his first Daytona 500 back when he was 13 and his father bought him his first race car, a Camaro. But when a team member appeared at the window and told him that NASCAR had declared him the victor, Kenseth, the most stoic driver in the sport, climbed from his car and did something in front of the cameras and notebooks that he'd never done in his 10-year Cup career: He wept.
Kenseth's signature skill—the ability to avoid wrecks and conserve his equipment—served him well on Sunday. On Lap 124, as Kenseth hurtled down the backstretch in fourth place, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevy came up fast behind Brian Vickers's Toyota, with both drivers a lap down and running beside the leaders. Vickers moved down to block Earnhardt, who veered back to the right and clipped Vickers. A heartbeat later Kenseth could see several out-of-control cars in his path, including the number 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch, who had led 88 of the first 120 laps and appeared to be the driver to beat.
Barreling into a cloud of smoke and spinning cars, Kenseth kept his foot on the gas and swerved to his left, missing Vickers by less than a foot as Vickers slammed into Busch, who slammed into the wall. Ten cars were involved in the wreck, but not the number 17. This was Kenseth at his best.