Matt Kenseth shows more sides of his personality
Feb 24, 2013 (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Close friends had seen the other side of a shy, young racer whose talent was more apparent than his confidence.
But even with casual acquaintances, those characteristics rarely come out.
He was blessed, he knew, to be in the big leagues. Every day, he feared, might be his last. So even as the lights grew brighter with every win, he put on sunglasses.
"He was guarded," said Mark Martin, a 30-year NASCAR veteran and role model. "He's always been a dang cutup. Big time.
"But he's guarded himself. That's the way he is. It's his personality."
Even when he reached the pinnacle of his profession, outsiders wondered who he was. A series sponsor's commercial portrayed him as a robot, and not everyone realized it was a joke. A columnist wrote that when the NASCAR championship celebration took place in New York, he put the "square" in Times Square.
A decade has passed since Matt Kenseth won his title and more than 15 years since he earned his place in NASCAR. In that time the native of Cambridge, Wis., embraced being daddy to little Kaylin and Grace and mentor to 19-year-old son Ross; he turned 40; he won his sport's biggest race twice; accumulated nearly $100 million in prize money; and arrived in a new place in his career, literally, after an off-season move.
Kenseth is still himself. He's just more comfortable letting people see who that is.
"I'm as confident as I've ever been," Kenseth, the 2009 and '12 Daytona 500 winner, said after finishing preparations to chase a third ring Sunday.
"I'm happier than I've ever been in life. Happy with my life outside of racing. Really happy with my life inside the garage."
Kenseth's 135,000 Twitter followers (@mattkenseth) have come to know his looser side. Take the one-word reply to a tweet about television by his son, Ross, an engineering student at Clemson: "#homework". He also posted a picture of himself and wife Katie decked out in 1970s attire for a costume party, his oversize sideburns and horseshoe mustache carved from a full 2011 off-season beard.
A video done for new Nationwide Series sponsor GameStop shows Kenseth, an avid "John Madden Football" player, clad in his Aaron Rodgers jersey, spending the night in team owner Joe Gibbs' office playing as the Green Bay Packers against the Washington Redskins, the team Gibbs coached to three Super Bowl victories.
He flexes like Clay Matthews, mimics Rodgers' championship-belt celebration and ends with a thump to his chest and quotes Terrell Owens, "I love me some me."
"We were just there messin' around," Kenseth said. "Some of it comes naturally, and some of it doesn't."
For so many years, much of it stayed in, or at least was missed by plenty of folks who weren't looking closely. Kenseth once said he was surprised at the reaction as he came out of his shell; he didn't know whether people would find him funny.
"Every meeting I've been in with Matt, I end up laughing," Gibbs said. "He's telling his stories, whether it's him and Kyle Busch racing in Wisconsin or some crazy thing going on, he's got a great sense of humor, he's very bright and got a real wit to him.
"To maybe a lot of people he seems to be maybe the quieter person, reserved. Actually, when you're with him that's not the case."
Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage, a close friend of Kenseth's, offered a tongue-in-cheek theory that demonstrates the sense of humor they hold in common.
"Now we understand his accent and realize that he's been funny all along and we didn't realize it," said Gossage, a native of Tennessee.
"Twitter has been a wonderful thing for him because there's no accent to Twitter. No, truthfully, Twitter has been good for him because everybody goes, 'Oh, wow. He's a funny guy.' He says more in 140 characters than most people say in half a day."
For perhaps the first time in his career, Kenseth also has been encouraged this year to show off his silly side.
The atmosphere at Joe Gibbs Racing is intentionally kept light, said Chris Helein, director of corporate communications for the organization. It was built by a man who made his living motivating people and drawing them together as a team, and Kenseth had spent the previous 13 years working for Jack Roush, who made his mark as an engineer.
The first time he climbed into a Gibbs Toyota Camry for a test in December at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kenseth found a Darth Vader mask on his mirror. It was a nod to Roush -- a Ford loyalist -- referring to the rival manufacturer as "the dark side."
"That's something I would have thought was funny but wouldn't have went through the effort to go buy one," Kenseth said. "Too much work for all of that."
After he missed shifts twice in the test at Charlotte, Kenseth found a crew member had used orange tape to make an H pattern in the cockpit, as if he needed help finding the gears.
"I don't want to say one's better or compare anything. It's just a different environment," Kenseth said.
"Once you get to the racetrack, things are basically the same. Goals are the same, procedures are the same, schedules are the same. A lot of things we do. There are certain different approaches and theories and things like that. But it's just different."
One common trait is a winning history.
Roush's teams own two championships in what is now Sprint Cup, two in the second-tier Nationwide Series and one in the trucks. JGR has three in Cup. Over the past five seasons, Roush has 28 victories in Cup races and 41 in Nationwide. Gibbs has 42 and 68.
"Not that many people get that opportunity to be with a top-notch team that many years and not really move around and then get this opportunity with these guys, who are championship-winning teams and win a lot of races," Kenseth said. "Quality organization, quality people."
Kenseth finds himself among the favorites in the 55th Daytona 500.
He had arguably the best car in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race eight days ago and ran second on the last lap of his qualifying race Thursday before dropping back to fifth.
Without having turned a competitive lap at a short track, intermediate speedway or road course, Kenseth said he couldn't predict how he might fare in his first season with Gibbs. But he doesn't expect the transition to a new car, new crew and new corporate culture to be a setback.
Perhaps then people will get to know Kenseth even better this year.
"I felt like this was a program where you could go win your first week if everything was right," Kenseth said. "If I didn't feel like they were going to be contenders to win a championship our first year or second year or third, whatever, I probably wouldn't have done it.
"I feel like they certainly have all the pieces over here to do it. We've just got to figure it out."
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