Commentary

Emotion overwhelms relieved Kenseth

Matt Kenseth didn't win a race in 2008. On Sunday at Daytona, the 2003 Sprint Cup champ won the biggest race of his career. And the tears flowed.

Updated: February 16, 2009, 9:53 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Just Saturday evening, after dinner, Matt Kenseth sat in his motor home with his wife, Katie, "telling her, 'I'm really getting fed up with not winning, with not being a contender.'"

Less than 24 hours later, Kenseth was standing in Victory Lane at the Daytona 500, not sure which was streaming down his face more -- rain, or tears of joy.

It was both. And one led to the other. The rain brought the win that brought the tears.

"It's gonna be really wet out here, because I'm crying like a baby," said the man with the long-running rap as a robot because he shows so little emotion. A while back, even the series sponsor was running TV commercials about him in which he turned out to be cardboard stand-up figures, copied again and again.

But here Kenseth stood in the blessed rain that had just shortened the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2003, with NASCAR officials calling the race after 152 laps, or only 380 miles.

Kenseth had suffered through last year as the "other" winless former Cup champion, with Jeff Gordon getting all the attention for his drought.

On Sunday morning, "It's not like I had a bad feeling about today, it's just that we haven't been a serious contender for a championship in a few years. We've been able to win races here and there, but we didn't win any last year," he said.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kenseth
AP Photo/John RaouxMatt Kenseth ended a 36-race winless skid and gave Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush his first Daytona 500 victory.

And that's why the emotion welled up in him, "just to win a race [any race] after our year last year," he said. "I didn't know if I was ever going to do that again …"

This was not only the first Daytona 500 win for Kenseth, 36, but his first restrictor-plate race win.

He'd been pretty down on himself in general for a while, but especially about plate racing.

"I don't feel I'm the best, really, at plate racing," he said. "I feel like a lot of times I make mistakes, which is really frustrating. I won't get my car in the right place at the right time."

Now, "to be able to put it all together and win this race is just really overwhelming.

"I'm just unbelievably thankful and humbled right now."

Unbelievably humbled and heartbroken was Elliott Sadler, who would have been an even bigger Cinderella story, but wound up going from first to fifth in what turned out to be the final shuffling in the draft under the green flag.

By the 146th lap, all crews and drivers knew the rain was coming fast. Sadler, who'd been dumped by his team just before Christmas, then gone to court, then got his ride back, led the race and hurtled toward a storybook finish.

But Kenseth, pushed by Kevin Harvick, got a run on Sadler off the fourth turn and took the lead moments before the caution came out due to a crash, and the rain started at the same time.

"To be half a lap short of being the champion of the Daytona 500 is very emotional to me," Sadler said. "Very hard to swallow, very emotional."

He spoke in chopped sentences.

"Had a chance to win it. Just made one mistake off Turn 4. I didn't drag the brake enough."

What he meant was that with the combination of bump-drafting and the huge aerodynamic pushes from other cars, the leader often gets shoved so far out front as to give his pursuers a gap in which to build momentum and make a run on him.

"Kevin and Matt had a really good run, and I didn't know which way to block them," Sadler said.

"My crew chief had told me for the last 45 minutes of the race that it was raining on the radar. I said, 'Welcome to Elliott Sadler's world. It's probably raining all the way around the racetrack but where we need it.'

"And the lap I get passed in Turn 1, it starts raining in Turn 3."

Actually the rain started a bit sooner than that, Kenseth reckoned. "When I cleared him, there were big raindrops through 1 and 2," Kenseth said. "I knew it was getting close, and then they had that accident where they threw the yellow.

"I didn't know it was going to be the pass [for the win], but I knew it had the potential to be."

Kenseth had been thinking for a few minutes, "on that last restart, sitting behind Elliott, that if I could get around him and hold the lead a little bit … I didn't think we were going to pit again. I thought the rain was coming. [Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer] said it was coming. You could see the sky getting darker. It was sprinkling for a while.

"So I got a run on Elliott and turned left to get position where he couldn't block it. He kind of just stayed in his lane, and I had momentum, and Kevin saw I had momentum and hung a left and went behind me."

Harvick, who finished second after pushing Kenseth to the front, felt "kind of like Elliott. Another lap and you never know what would have happened."

Yet another near-Cinderella man, AJ Allmendinger, finished third in his first outing for the newly formed Richard Petty Motorsports, and Clint Bowyer squeezed by Sadler for fourth.

For Harvick, the race ended "kind of bittersweet, just from the fact that Matt's the one who pushed me to my Daytona 500 win [in 2007]. In the end, it's kind of weird how that stuff works out."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.