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Kenseth: the quiet leader of the pack

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He'll share a laugh with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the way to drivers' introductions, and he'll be cordial to other drivers during a night out arranged by his sponsor or car manufacturer.

But, for the most part, Winston Cup points leader Matt Kenseth keeps to himself during race weekends.

"There's something to be said for people not knowing you very well," said driver Jimmy Johnson. "There's a little intimidation factor, a little mystery. ... If no one knows you, they can't pick you apart. They can't pick on your driving style, your personality or anything. But I don't think he does it intentionally."

In fact, the whole idea of Kenseth being a recluse may be a myth.

If you go into the Winston Cup garage on a Saturday morning and watch, you'll see Kenseth dressed in his driver's uniform strolling through the area or leaning on his car's rear bumper talking to his crew chief.

He's out there, but no one seems to notice. Fans ignore him and stand gazing at the car and driver parked next to him - Dale Earnhardt Jr. Photographers aim their lenses away from Kenseth to get a picture of the series' celebrity, the son of the late seven-time Winston Cup champion.

"I don't see myself as a recluse or anything," Kenseth said. "I mean, my first two years racing here I saw Jeff Gordon just once. He came into the garage at 4 o'clock and disappeared. I don't think there is any great mystery. I think I'm outside my trailer more than they are. I think I hang out as much as the other guy."

The thing is, said Roanoke (Va.) Times sportswriter Dustin Long, "Matt is so unassuming and normal he could disappear in an empty room."

Kenseth is simply a quiet man in a noisy sport. He grew up in Wisconsin going to racetracks with his father.

"We never had the luxury of a lot of money," he said. "As a kid, I never stayed in the truck playing video games. I worked on my car. And now, I'm thinking about my racecar most of the time."

In three years, Kenseth, 31, has gone from nowhere to being the sport's biggest race winner last season, to being its points leader for the past 18 weeks. He has turned what looked to be bad finishes into Top 10 finishes, and he has avoided accidents at places like Daytona International Speedway and the road course at Sonoma, Calif.

He and his team have been so well-oiled, Fox broadcaster and former crew chief Jeff Hammond says, "They operate like a 10-speed bike."

Every sprocket, Hammond said, has a purpose.

"In the course of time, they dip into those different gears to make good things happen for them," he said. "They use every part - engineering, the car chief, the tire specialist, the chassis man, the pit crew. They've used everything they have to get where they are."

Where they are, with 15 races to go, is 286 points ahead of Earnhardt and 318 points ahead of Gordon, who won the pole for tomorrow's race at Watkins Glen International. (Gordon's Chevrolet sped around the 2.45-mile serpentine track at a record-breaking 124.580 mph. Second was Greg Biffle, in a Ford, followed by his teammate, Mark Martin. Earnhardt and Kenseth were among the top 10.)

Kenseth's crew chief, Robbie Reiser, grew up the same way Kenseth did in Wisconsin, going to races, working on cars with his father. They didn't know each other in those early days, but their similar experiences have forged an understanding.

It's part of what makes the No. 17 Ford team run so smoothly.

"We have mutual respect because we come from the same place," said Kenseth. "I think that helps."

It also helps that they have been working together since the 1997 Busch season, when Kenseth drove Reiser's car.

Now Reiser works as hard as he can to produce the best race cars, and Kenseth works as hard as he can to drive the best race.

The results of that work ethic - perhaps as much or more than Kenseth's perceived remoteness - has created doubt among competitors about chances to overtake the No. 17 Ford in the standings.

"We're not going to beat him on the racetrack," said Dale Earnhardt Inc. vice president Ty Norris. "I don't think we can make up 286 points on the track. For us - or anyone to beat him - we have to be on our game every week and he has to have issues like cut tires and crashes."

Norris thinks many people view Kenseth's attitude negatively and misjudge his talent.

"Matt isn't one of the flamboyant drivers," Norris said. "He's vanilla. I think because of that people underestimate his ability as a driver and his ability to communicate with his team. I think he's an incredible driver. He's like [former Utah Jazz guard] John Stockton. Stockton does the same things [New Jersey Nets guard] Jason Kidd does and maybe more, but Kidd gets all the attention."

In auto racing terms, Norris compares Kenseth's talent and style to that of the legendary David Pearson, who would go unnoticed in a race until the closing laps, when he'd suddenly appear among the top five and go for the victory.

"Matt is like the tiger that lurks in the bushes until it's time to pounce," Norris said. "He's that savvy."

As an example, Norris reaches back to a Busch race in March 1997. Norris was spotting for Steve Park. Kenseth was subbing in Reiser's car, which had been less than competitive with other drivers for a long time.

"Late in the race, we were competing for the win and I walked over to Matt's spotter and asked him to tell Matt to give us some room and that guy looked at me with wide eyes. He said, 'We're on the lead lap.' I said, 'The 17 is on the lead lap?' He said, 'We're fifth.'

"I was definitely surprised. I hadn't even noticed him till then. But the spotter told me Kenseth is a good, clean racer and he'll always be competitive. I started to pay attention to him then, and that guy has been exactly right."

Whether at DEI or in the Jeff Gordon operation, no one is willing to concede the points race.

"Lord, no," said Robbie Loomis, Gordon's crew chief. "You can see the lead swapped in two races. It's a matter of who doesn't do their job. By the end of the year, we can overcome those guys if we do our job."

Gordon said: "We certainly need some breaks to go our way, and we've been hit-and-miss. We haven't been as consistent as those guys have been. We've outrun them at a lot of tracks, but we haven't always had the finishes to show for it. That's what we've got to do the rest of the year."

Another factor is the ability to handle the pressure. Both Gordon and Kenseth discussed that at Pocono two weeks ago.

"It's difficult," Gordon said. "Things are going well and you have a big point lead and you want to keep that cushion. Sometimes, even though you don't intentionally do it, you start thinking, 'save, save, save, conserve, conserve, conserve.' Or you do things that are a little less risky. Sometimes that can get you in trouble."

Kenseth said he tries to race the same way every race because he has seen bad things happen to drivers who have tried to play it safe. He added that he is fighting his nervous system all the time.

"I'm always nervous about something," Kenseth said. "The last two or three weeks particularly I've been more nervous than last year because we were a long ways behind. This year, if we have trouble, someone could close in on us. There's definitely some pressure. Not wanting anything to break down, you do worry."

So here he is - Mr. Vanilla, casting a long shadow.

"So many things can go wrong," Kenseth said. "I try not to get too excited about it, though winning the championship has become my dream. I definitely don't think everything is going to go right the rest of the year - but I hope it will."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Points standings

Winston Cup

No. Driver Points Winnings

1. Matt Kenseth 3,152 $2,826,940

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,866 $3,206,110

3. Jeff Gordon 2,834 $3,191,690

4. Jimmie Johnson 2,656 $3,790,880

5. Michael Waltrip 2,653 $3,297,680

6. Bobby Labonte 2,642 $2,964,970

7. Kevin Harvick 2,623 $3,178,920

8. Kurt Busch 2,569 $3,555,050

9. Ryan Newman 2,498 $2,962,320

10. Rusty Wallace 2,467 $2,380,090

11. Robby Gordon 2,442 $2,412,300

12. Jeff Burton 2,437 $2,434,730

13. Tony Stewart 2,420 $3,107,320

14. Terry Labonte 2,392 $2,235,670

15. Mark Martin 2,362 $2,692,550

16. Sterling Marlin 2,339 $2,475,710

17. Bill Elliott 2,244 $2,492,980

18. Ricky Craven 2,174 $2,097,190

19. Elliott Sadler 2,151 $2,301,430

20. Greg Biffle 2,126 $1,518,360

Lineup

Sirius Satellite Radio

At Watkins Glen, N.Y. Race distance: 220.5 miles, 90 laps

1. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, 124.580 mph.

2. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 124.497 mph.

3. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, 124.464 mph.

4. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevy, 124.267 mph.

5. (2) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 124.255 mph.

6. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevy, 124.145 mph.

7. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 123.673 mph.

8. (97) Kurt Busch, Ford, 123.673 mph.

9. (18) Bobby Labonte, Chevy, 123.590 mph.

10. (01) Boris Said, Pontiac, 123.384 mph.

11. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevy, 123.233 mph.

12. (41) Casey Mears, Dodge, 123.190 mph.

13. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 123.147 mph.

14. (31) Robby Gordon, Chevy, 123.019 mph.

15. (0) John Andretti, Chevy, 122.959 mph.

16. (77) Dave Blaney, Ford, 122.925 mph.

17. (54) Todd Bodine, Ford, 122.730 mph.

18. (1) Ron Fellows, Chevy, 122.699 mph.

19. (5) Terry Labonte, Chevy, 122.674 mph.

20. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 122.653 mph.

21. (25) Joe Nemechek, Chevy, 122.624 mph.

22. (22) Ward Burton, Dodge, 122.478 mph.

23. (99) Jeff Burton, Ford, 122.469 mph.

24. (38) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 122.345 mph.

25. (9) Bill Elliott, Dodge, 122.310 mph.

26. (21) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 122.264 mph.

27. (10) Johnny Benson, Pontiac, 122.232 mph.

28. (39) Scott Pruett, Dodge, 122.144 mph.

29. (42) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 121.995 mph.

30. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 121.660 mph.

31. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 121.432 mph.

32. (04) Johnny Miller, Pontiac, 121.396 mph.

33. (4) P.J. Jones, Pontiac, 121.274 mph.

34. (15) Michael Waltrip, Chevy, 121.234 mph.

35. (23) Kenny Wallace, Dodge, 121.195 mph.

36. (44) Christian Fittipaldi, Dodge, 121.169 mph.

37. (40) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, provisional.

38. (32) Ricky Craven, Pontiac, provisional.

39. (7) Jimmy Spencer, Dodge, provisional.

40. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, provisional.

41. (30) Steve Park, Chevy, provisional.

42. (74) Tony Raines , Chevy, provisional.

43. (33) Paul Menard, Chevy, provisional.

Failed to qualify

44. (49) Ken Schrader, Dodge, 119.959 mph.

45. (35) Joe Varde, Chevy, 119.900 mph.

46. (43) Scott Maxwell, Dodge, 119.635 mph.

47. (50) Larry Foyt, Dodge, 117.812 mph.

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