Kenseth win is a tough sell in NASCAR’s big event

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Associated Press
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
— Matt Kenseth is not boring or bland. Get to know him a bit, and one might find heís actually rather funny.

Sure, heís a bit quiet in a crowd. But the driver with a dry wit is also calm, consistent and a very classy NASCAR champion.

He just wonít sell any tickets.

Thatís the conundrum NASCAR faces following Kensethís win in Sundayís rain-shortened Daytona 500. It was a popular victory inside the garage, where the 2003 NASCAR champion is regarded as one of the good guys.

Outside of that bubble, though, Kenseth is no threat to challenge Dale Earnhardt Jr.ís reign as most popular driver. Fans will never root against him the way they do Kyle Busch, and, itís a good bet unproven 18-year-old Joey Logano will draw more interest than the well-established Kenseth.

And interest is what NASCAR needs more than anything, particularly as the sport moves West this week into the less-than-enthusiastic Los Angeles market.

A thrilling Daytona 500 finish and a dynamic winner would have been akin to a winning lottery ticket for Gillian Zucker, who try as she might just canít catch a break as president of beleaguered Auto Club Speedway. Give her Junior, Jeff or Jimmie to parade through her market all week, she might be able to move some tickets.

Instead sheís got Kenseth, a guy so steely that the rare emotion he showed after the victory likely will be the lasting image of this yearís race.

It isnít fair, though, for anyone to be disappointed by Kensethís victory or the anticlimactic end to NASCARís version of the Super Bowl.

Calling the race 115 miles short of completion was not ideal for anyone, particularly for a sanctioning body desperately needing a strong kickoff to the season after months of economic turmoil. NASCAR, despite the strong health of the overall organization, is saddled with a ďthe sky is fallingĒ perception because the economic crisis has hit some independent team owners harder than others.

The only stimulus package with any shot at settling the storm is on the track, where good, hard racing can cure most ills.

Thatís what people got Sundayóat least for 152 laps. Everyone knew all week that rain would threaten the big event, so the entire day was a race against Mother Nature. The 3:40 EST start time left people standing around waiting for the action and wondering why, if the rain was coming, werenít they racing while it was still dry?

When the green flag finally fell, it became a race to the halfway point that makes it an official event. The racing was calm, with drivers just trying to avoid trouble through the first 100 laps. Then it got interesting. Whoever was leading when the rain came had an excellent chance of claiming the $1.5 million grand prize.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., down a lap because two mental errors in the pits had taken him out of contention, had to turn it up a notch to have any shot at victory. It led to an aggressive jostling for position with Brian Vickers that triggered a nine-car accident.

Busch, who declared after he was ď100 percentĒ certain he was going to win the race, was collateral damage and wound up wrecked after leading a race-high 88 laps. On a scale of 1 to 10, Busch placed his disappointment at 15 and was likely seething at Earnhardt.

Vickers was, too, and couldnít quite understand why NASCAR didnít penalize Earnhardt for aggressive driving. One day earlier, Jason Leffler was parked for five laps for intentionally causing a wreck, but Earnhardt escaped a similar fate because NASCAR said his actions werenít deliberate.

Thatís the extent of the Daytona drama, all of it overshadowing Kensethís slide past Elliott Sadler a half-lap before caution came out and the field was frozen for the final time. The rain had finally arrived.

It took NASCAR less than 20 minutes to decide to call it, because officials knew it would rain for at least an hour and take three hours beyond that to dry the track.

So thatís how Kenseth won his first Daytona 500, and why everyone but him felt a little flat following the race.

Thereís no one obvious person to blame for the letdown. Maybe Fox for insisting on a late afternoon start that backed NASCAR into a corner in terms of waiting out the rain. Or maybe Earnhardt, for starting an accident that wiped out Busch, the class of the field.

But even if Busch had still been around when the race was finally called, the anticlimactic ending would not have changed.

Some may use the Daytona 500 as an example to avoid this weekendís race in California, maybe even write off the entire season. But tuning out because Kenseth isnít exciting or weather spoiled the day isnít fair.

The show will go on, NASCAR will guarantee that, and maybe just maybe, next week will be a little bit better.

Last updated: 9:38 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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