NASCAR’s Matt Kenseth is about as quiet, mild-mannered and unpretentious driver as there can be in the loud and flamboyant world of Sprint Cup racing.
And last week, rival Sprint Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. tagged Kenseth with a new description.
“He’s always a worry wart,” Earnhardt said. “Every time I see him, even when his car is fast in practice, he might say, his car is not that good.
“I’m always having to pump him up and tell him how good things are going to be.”
It wouldn’t seem that Kenseth has that much to worry about.
He’s won a series-leading seven races this season, the most of his career. He won the first two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and heads into today’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway atop the standings in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing.
But Kenseth, the winner of both races since Kansas Speedway was repaved and re-banked in 2012, worries about every bolt, belt, spring and shock in his No. 20 Toyota. He worries about the competition, he worries about his children, and the die-hard Green Bay Packers fan even stresses over who to start on his fantasy football team.
“I’m a little bit of a worrier,” he said. “It depends on how you define the word worry. I worry about my daughter falling and splitting her head open … I worry about whatever. It’s not necessarily about racing.
“If you turn worry into preparation and trying to make things better and talking over things, then, yeah, there are things to worry about. But if you’re just going to sit in your motor home and worry … and not talk about things or try to prepare and fix things … then it doesn’t do you any good.
“I don’t sit up at night and just worry about things I can’t control. But if you want to want to use the word worry, I certainly think about things … “
Kenseth, 41, made a career-altering move this year when he left Roush Fenway Racing, the only Sprint Cup home he had known for 14 years, for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.
Kenseth had won the Sprint Cup championship in 2003, a season that personified his understated personality. He won just one race that year but his series-most 25 top-10 finishes accumulated enough points to win the title by a comfortable 90 points.
Kenseth’s humdrum championship led NASCAR to adopt a radical change by instituting the 10-race Chase, a post-season playoff that put more of a premium on winning races.
He doesn’t apologize for winning a championship with the fewest wins since Benny Parsons won once in 1973.
“One system or the other doesn’t make a difference to me,” Kenseth said. “Winning a championship is winning a championship. You don’t look at the record books and say, this is (the Chase) … I use the example of Tony Stewart all the time. Tony won a championship (2005) in the Chase by not winning any races over the final 10, and he won a championship in the Chase (2011) by winning half of them.
“We had an unbelievable season that year. We didn’t have the fastest cars … (or) led the most laps, but we were consistently in the top five and had really good finishes, really good teamwork that entire year. I’ve never been in a race that I haven’t wanted to win. If we could have won more races that year … we would have loved that to happen. It wasn’t like weren’t trying to win more races.”
Kenseth soldiered on for the next nine seasons at Roush Fenway, finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in 2006 but didn’t seriously threaten for a championship after that.
When Kenseth’s contract was to expire with Roush Fenway, he began talks with Joe Gibbs.
“Matt was under-appreciated at Roush,” said Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip, an analyst for NASCAR on Fox. “Matt felt like he was second fiddle to Carl Edwards. For a former champion like Matt Kenseth, it’s hard on your confidence …
“Matt saw an opportunity. It was a fresh start, even though he’s 41 years old. Where he was under appreciated at Roush, he was welcomed with open arms at Gibbs because they needed a leader. They needed someone to come in there who had the experience and demeanor and personality of a Matt Kenseth.”
Kenseth was optimistic about his move to Gibbs, but he didn’t envision the transition would be so smooth.
“I wouldn’t have predicted we’d win seven races,” Kenseth said, “but I had a very good feeling about the year. I felt it was going to be one of the best years of my career. I really did feel like that. But feeling like that are doing it are two different things. Certainly, it’s been better than anything I expected or hoped for.”
Or even worried about.