NASCAR: The Best Word to Describe Matt Kenseth Is 'Classy'

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 21, 2012

KANSAS CITY, KS - OCTOBER 21:  Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Zest Ford, celebrates with his wife Katie and their family in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 21, 2012 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)
John Harrelson/Getty Images

Ask every one of his fellow competitors in the Sprint Cup Series to best describe Matt Kenseth in one word, and I can almost guarantee you the response will be virtually the same each and every time:


Indeed, Kenseth is one of the classiest drivers in NASCAR, a soft-spoken, almost shy individual who appreciates everything he has and the success he's had over the years—taking nothing for granted—perhaps more than any other fellow driver.

Classiness isn't something you can be taught. You either have it as a personality trait or you don't. Thankfully, Kenseth has that classy trait—always has, always will.

You can also say the same thing about his team as well: From veteran crew chief and fellow Wisconsin native Jimmy Fennig on down to the lowest guy on the totem pole, they're all equally as classy as the guy they support behind the wheel.

When Kenseth announced he was leaving Roush Fenway Racing earlier this season, his team could easily have quit on him, particularly during the 10-race Chase that we are now nearly two-thirds of the way through.

But no one has quit on anyone. Kenseth hasn't quit on his team and his team hasn't quit on him.

And even with Sunday's win, and despite the fact that the now ninth-ranked Kenseth is still 55 points out of first place, he and his team keep fighting as if they can still win the championship.

It's that never quit type of character that will continue to be front and center going forward in Kenseth's now final four races for RFR. Even if he's mathematically eliminated from championship contention by the season finale at Homestead, I guarantee you Kenseth and his team will continue fighting as if the last race of the season is indeed for the title—and not the last race they'll likely ever spend together.

Kenseth's team has been among the most loyal in the business to him for years, particularly veteran spotter Mike Calinoff—and instead of just letting him go to Joe Gibbs Racing, they're trying to give him the best sendoff a driver can have.

When they've left their teams to go elsewhere, few drivers can brag about the fighting spirit that Kenseth's team has shown ever since the Wisconsin native announced in June that he would be leaving Roush Fenway Racing after 13 years to go to what was then an unnamed team. It took two months and was one of the worst-kept secrets in NASCAR before it was formally announced that he indeed was headed to JGR.

Kenseth himself could have mailed it in during the Chase. He could have simply coasted through the 10-race playoff and then turned his attention to the next chapter of his career.

But instead, he wanted to end the season with the same kind of spirit he started the season, winning the Daytona 500 for the second time in his career. That's why he was so emotional after winning Sunday's race. That's why he was so emotional after winning two weeks ago at Talladega.

And frankly, even though much of the attention the next four weeks will be on points leaders Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, I'm not going to be surprised to see Kenseth win another one or two—or maybe even three—of those final four races. He and his team are that driven, that determined, that motivated.

You'll never see Kenseth's name in the police blotter, like we've seen Kyle Busch or A.J. Allmendinger. You'll never hear Kenseth go out and vociferously blast and belittle another driver in the manner that some of his less-classy Sprint Cup counterparts have done over the years.

You'll never see Kenseth curse much more than saying "heck" or "darn" or, in rare instances, "damn." He rarely loses his cool, too. Remember when he and Jeff Gordon had a run-in a few years ago and Gordon came up to Kenseth and pushed him, yet Kenseth did not retaliate. Or how about the supposed feud Kenseth had with teammate Carl Edwards—which after further examination became more of a feud that Edwards had with Kenseth? Kenseth all but said the problem was Edwards', not his, and he ultimately was proven right.

Soon, the driver of the No. 17 Ford will trade in his car number and manufacturer and resurface at the beginning of the 2013 season driving the No. 20 Toyota. Almost by default, even though he'll be the new kid on the block at JGR, he will command the respect worthy of a team's best driver—and that's essentially what he'll be right off the bat.

After all, unless Denny Hamlin rallies in the last four races, Kenseth will be the only active Sprint Cup champ in the JGR camp, having done so in 2003, the year before the birth of the Chase format. He'll also be the only one of his teammates to win the Daytona 500 not just once, but twice.

Kenseth's quiet nature will be in stark contrast to the cocky side of Kyle Busch and the party-hardy nature of Hamlin. But you know what? It's Kenseth's nature that team owner Joe Gibbs and president J.D. Gibbs specifically sought out, knowing that he could serve as a great role model for the much younger Hamlin and, especially, Busch.

There we go back to that descriptive word: classy. If there's anything Hamlin and especially Busch can learn from Kenseth, it truly is classiness.

Granted, there's an irony of sorts with Kenseth leaving RFR. Team owner Jack Roush spent virtually every chance he could in 2007 and 2008 belittling the entry of Toyota into the Sprint Cup Series, oftentimes spouting some rather controversial comments about the first foreign manufacturer to come to the Cup level full-time in NASCAR history.

To his credit, Kenseth stayed out of that battle: He didn't have a dog in that Roush vs. Toyota fight. He simply went out and did his job. And now, seven years after Toyota came to the Cup level, he'll soon be driving for Roush's bitter manufacturing rival.

Sure, Kenseth could have likely remained at RFR for the rest of his Cup career. He seemingly had a home for life there. But because he isn't the kind of guy who makes headlines for nothing other than winning, because he isn't controversial, because he isn't more colorful than he is—Kenseth has gotten a knock at times for being boring.

Hey, trust me, there's nothing wrong with being boring.

And because he isn't the kind of colorful or controversial Stewart-Harvick-Busch type that sponsors crave to have represent them, sponsorship has been hard to find for Kenseth's car the last few seasons.

But now, come 2013, he'll have a hearty long-term deal with Home Depot to succeed Joey Logano and, before him, Tony Stewart, in the orange and white No. 20 Toyota Camry. Kenseth won't have to worry about sponsorship; he can simply go out and do what he does best, just like he did Sunday at Kansas: drive and win.

If he keeps doing just that, it could produce one of the oddest ironies of all in the sport, one sure to make Roush really hot under the collar: becoming the first driver—make that former-Ford driver—to win a Sprint Cup title driving a Toyota.

And he'll do it in his same quiet, calm, blue collar everyman style: nothing flashy, nothing outrageous, nothing off-color. Rather, just plain basic, simple and steady—like he did Sunday, like he's done in every one of his 24 career Cup wins—and like he'll continue to do for many more years to come.

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