Commentary

Soft-spoken Kenseth is OK with being the Chase poster boy

You can blame Matt Kenseth for the Chase. Well, that might be taking it too far, but he is the Chase poster boy. And he's OK with that, writes Ryan McGee.

Updated: September 12, 2008, 7:39 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

This is all Matt Kenseth's fault.

If you loathe the Chase for the Sprint Cup format … if you lie awake in your bed at night bothered by the fact that NASCAR just hit the reset button on 26 weeks of racing … if you will never get used to the fact that your beloved non-stick-and-ball sport now has a "regular season" and a "playoffs," then feel free to direct your ire to the man who caused your pain.

He's ready to take your best shot.

"I guess it is my fault," the soft-spoken 36-year-old racer says with a shrug and a grin. "Everybody is always telling me that it is, so if they say it is, maybe it is. I don't know."

It was five years ago this fall that Kenseth unleashed such a beat-down on the Cup garage that drivers' collective cries for help were finally heard by the league office.

And like it or not, the quietest guy in the garage set off a shockwave that reverberates to this day, from NASCAR to drag racing to golf.

Blueprint of a Beatdown
In 2003, Kenseth and his No. 17 DeWalt Ford won the season's third race, outlasting old Busch Series rival Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win at Las Vegas. The following week, he slid into the season points lead with a fourth-place showing at Atlanta.

He never gave it up again.

By the end of March, his lead was up to triple digits. By the end of July, it was more than 200 points. By the end of August, it was more than 400. By Nov. 9, with one full race remaining in the season, it was over. Matt Kenseth was the NASCAR Winston Cup champion and the season finale at Homestead was relegated to nothing more than an exhibition race.

But here's the thing. Instead of congratulating the Cambridge Kid on winning the Cup, fans, media and rivals started ripping Kenseth for what he didn't do.

"He didn't win a lot of races did he?" Ryan Newman squints as he tries to remember.

In fact, Mr. Newman, he won only once: that lone victory at Las Vegas, which by November had already become a faint memory. Newman led the league in victories with eight, followed by Kurt Busch with four, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon with three apiece, then five guys -- Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Michael Waltrip, and Robby Gordon -- with two victories each. (Michael Waltrip and Robby Gordon?)

Kenseth was seventh in top-5s with 11 in 36 races and ranked a pedestrian eleventh in laps led, 354 to Gordon's 1,639. He won zero poles (though he did start up front twice due to qualifying rainouts). In fact, his average starting position for the year was worse than 20th, ranked 19th among that year's full-time racers.

Yet he topped them all in the points standings. How?

Captain Consistency
"He beat us into submission," says Jeff Gordon with a chuckle. Gordon finished the season fourth. "He had one of those years that just demoralized you. I'd finish third and he'd finish second. I'd win and he'd finish third. You just couldn't make up ground on him."

Lost in the furor over the fact that the champ had won only one race was what will go down as one of the most remarkably consistent seasons of NASCAR's Modern Era. He led the league in top-10 finishes with 25 in 36 races, reeling off top-10 streaks of seven, six, and four. Seven of those top-10s were top-threes.

Even more remarkable than his ability to have good days was his uncanny knack for avoiding bad ones. He didn't suffer his first DNF until the season's 29th race, a blown engine that still didn't keep him from leading one lap and grabbing five bonus points. In the season opener at Daytona, he turned a wrecked race car into a 20th-place finish -- the first of only five finishes of 20th or worse, three of which came after he was admittedly in late-season lead-protection cruise control.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kenseth
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesMatt Kenseth makes no apologies for winning a Cup or for being the driver others point to as the reason for the Chase.

His average finish for the season was a series-best 10.2, one full point better than runner-up Johnson.

"Did we want to win more races?" says Kenseth's crew chief Robbie Reiser, now general manager of Roush Fenway Racing, as he rolls his eyes at the question. "Heck yeah, we did. But there's two ways to win a championship: win a bunch or be consistent. Depending on what kind of year you're having, you play the cards you're dealt. The year before, we won five races, more wins than anyone else, and finished eighth in points. I'll take the ring over the wins."

A Case -- and a Chase -- for Change
NASCAR, already itching for ways to better compete with football in the fall, seized the opportunity handed to it by the sudden outcry about Kenseth's one-win title. In fact, NASCAR officials had been kicking around ideas for a "postseason" for years, bothered that five of the six Cup titles between 1998 and 2003 had been clinched before the mid-November season finale.

"Brian [France] and I are both admitted football junkies," recalls then-NASCAR VP of licensing Mark Dyer. "We'd always talked about how to create a bowl season or playoffs kind of excitement for the sport. Then one day it hit us."

In 2004, the top 10 drivers would do battle over the season's final 10 races, essentially hitting the reset button and bunching them up for a 10-car, 2½-month match race. Never again would a Matt Kenseth be able to carry a 329-point lead into autumn.

The result was a season finale for the ages, with Kurt Busch, Johnson and Gordon battling for the title all the way through the final lap of the year, Busch coming out on top by a scant eight points. And for the first time in as long as anyone could remember, the new Cup champ enjoyed equal media billing with the NFL.

Kenseth, with two wins, finished eighth.

The following season, the PGA Tour announced that it was looking into its own version of the Chase, known now as the FedEx Cup, and in 2007 the NHRA instituted a Chase-like championship format for its top four drag racing divisions.

What Goes Around …
Now, when that post-2003 ruckus is brought to his attention, Kenseth reacts just as he does to pretty much everything else. He smiles and deflects.

"Some people really like the Chase and some don't," says Kenseth, one of only two men (with Johnson) to qualify for all five editions of the postseason format. "So I guess some people are mad at me and some think I'm the greatest. That's fine either way."

In his defense, Kenseth certainly wasn't the only low-win driver to earn a championship under the pre-Chase points systems. Benny Parsons won the 1973 title with only one win, and in the 29 years between Benny and Matt's Cups, the driver with the most wins failed to win the championship nine times. Terry Labonte, Darrell Waltrip, Alan Kulwicki and Tony Stewart all won Cups with three wins or fewer.

But America loves winning, not boring old consistency. And love it or loathe it, the Chase is here to stay. Besides, no Kenseth fan could possibly be complaining about the system this year.

"We haven't had the best season," Kenseth says while pointing to the big zero in his '08 win column. "But when we get to New Hampshire, the Chase automatically makes us title contenders. Without it, we'd already be working on next season. So maybe I did myself a favor."

Maybe he did one for us all.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

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