DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Maybe it’s his consistent approach on the track, or his low-key demeanor off it.
Whatever the reason, Matt Kenseth’s name usually isn’t the first to come up when people talk about current Sprint Cup Series drivers who might rank among the sport’s all-time greats.
But with Kenseth’s Daytona 500 victory on Monday, his racing resume is hard to ignore. When Kenseth’s career is over, a case can be made that he’ll be worthy of consideration for NASCAR’s Hall of Fame.
Kenseth said he hasn’t put much thought into his place in the sport’s history. He’s just happy he got a chance.
“We’ve done a lot of things beyond my wildest dreams,” Kenseth said. “I never thought I’d get a chance to run in this series and run a Daytona 500, much less win one — or two. Certainly, I appreciate and enjoy the success I’ve had so far.”
Kenseth has won two Daytona 500s, a Cup Series championship in 2003, and has 22 career Cup race victories. He also has 26 career wins in NASCAR’s second-tier series, now known as Nationwide.
His defining characteristic as a driver always has been his consistency; in 437 career Cup starts, Kenseth has 210 top-10 finishes.
Given Kenseth’s career accomplishments — and his obvious ability to run up front as he nears his 40th birthday on March 10 — it seems odd that his Roush Fenway Racing team has not yet been able to find a full season’s worth of sponsorship for his No. 17 car.
The Daytona win might pay off in renewed sponsorship interest. But as far as Kenseth knew Wednesday, it hadn’t yet. Kenseth said he occasionally gets updates from the team’s sponsorship sales department but generally stays focused on racing.
“I think they have some inventory they’re trying to sell,” Kenseth said. “They give me some updates. But other than that, I kind of let the sales department do their thing, and try to do our thing from a performance standpoint.”
According to the team, Best Buy has committed to sponsoring Kenseth in nine races this season, with Zest sponsoring an additional four races and Valvoline as the primary sponsor for one race.
Team co-owner Jack Roush is expected to run the No. 17 team for a full season regardless of the sponsorship situation, but Roush Fenway very much would like to sell the rest of the races available on Kenseth’s car.
“I hoped, I guess, that the way our performance was last year and all that, that it would have been a little easier for the sales department to be able to fully sponsor the car,” Kenseth said. “But I know that’s been a struggle, not only for our car, but for some other cars.”
Roush Fenway isn’t fielding its No. 6 Cup car for a full season in 2012 because of sponsorship concerns. The team also is looking for sponsors for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne.
“I think it’s been tough out there right now,” Kenseth said.
And yes, it has occurred to Kenseth that his subdued public persona might hurt his chances with potential sponsors.
“I’ve thought about that,” Kenseth said. “Of course you think about it: ‘OK, well maybe there’s something I’m not doing right or saying right or whatever.’”
While Kenseth has a sharp, dry sense of humor, he isn’t a fast-talking salesman in the mold of a Michael Waltrip.
And his consistency on the track hasn’t always been celebrated; he won only one race during his 2003 championship season, something that was believed to be a large factor in NASCAR’s decision to institute a playoff-style Chase format for its championship.
But Kenseth notes that Roush Fenway also is struggling to find sponsors for Bayne — a 21-year-old, outgoing driver filled with potential.
“I mean, we can all dissect my personality or my looks or what I say or what I do, or don’t say and don’t do, and pick on that, I guess,” Kenseth said. “But you can look at the opposite end of the spectrum, you can look at (then) 20-year-old Trevor Bayne who won the Daytona 500, who everybody was doing backflips over because he won the Daytona 500 with the Wood Brothers and all that stuff, but they can’t get a sponsor for him in Nationwide or Cup, either.”
In the end, Kenseth doesn’t know any other way to do it beyond just being himself.
“I’ve been in the sport for a while, and I’ve always just tried to be myself,” Kenseth said. “I haven’t really changed for anybody. I don’t really think that’s a bad thing. I’m pretty much a face-value kind of guy.”