Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kenseth Makes Tiny Hometown Proud

By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Cambridge, Wis., is a quiet, staid kind of place, the sort of community where folks leave their doors unlocked and intentionally relocate to raise their kids in a safe, homey environment.

Frankly, not a whole heck of a lot happens in Cambridge, population 1,200, located about 20 miles north of the state capital of Madison. A big crime wave there is when kids steal a couple of garden hoses as a prank.

But Sunday, arguably one of the biggest things to ever happen to Cambridge occurred -- albeit 1,300 miles away.

Favorite son Matt Kenseth, who left Cambridge more than a decade ago to make his fame and fortune in the world of NASCAR, led just one green-flag lap (and six laps under caution) -- but it was more than enough as he held on to win the rain-shortened 51st running of the Daytona 500.

Forget Cheesehead jokes or saying that no other sport in the state matters other than the Green Bay Packers. Today, Kenseth is the toast not only of Cambridge but all of Badger-land.

Kenseth, who started 39th, methodically worked his way to the front -- dodging a few wrecks along the way -- to become the first Wisconsin native to ever win both a Cup championship (2003) and now a Daytona 500.

"It's been a pretty quiet offseason up in Cambridge," Kenseth said. "I just hope everybody's fired up back there and celebrating and having a good time."

The race was scheduled for 200 laps around the 2.5-mile, high-banked Daytona International Speedway, but a huge rainstorm blew in just past the three-quarter mark. Weather radar indicated the storm would last for several hours, prompting NASCAR to call the event "official" after just 152 laps.

"I woke up this morning not really thinking I was going to win the Daytona 500," Kenseth said after leaving victory lane.

As for the race ending 48 laps short of its originally scheduled length, a win is a win, no matter what. Kenseth has been on the losing end plenty of times in rain-shortened races.

Sunday, the odds finally wound up in his favor.

"I'll take it," Kenseth said. "I'm not going to think less of it because it was shortened by rain. We still raced nearly 400 miles."

Not only can Kenseth now lay claim to winning the sport's biggest race -- making it two consecutive years that a Midwestern native has won the Great American Race (Indiana's Ryan Newman won last year). He also snapped a 36-race winless streak.

After winning his last race in the 2007 finale at Homestead, Fla., Kenseth went the entire 2008 season without even one trip to victory lane -- the first time he was shut out in a season since 2001.

He made sure right away that he wouldn't get shut out in 2009. It was also the first win for rookie crew chief Drew Blickensderfer in as many races.

"It can only go downhill from here," Blickensderfer said, joking that he was considering retiring so that he could be undefeated as a crew chief.

Team owner Jack Roush also chuckled at Blickensderfer's good fortune.

"I don't know if Drew deserves this," Roush said. "I had to wait over 20 years for my first Daytona 500, and he wins one in his first race as a crew chief. I'll be black and blue the next few days from pinching myself just to make sure I'm not dreaming."

Kenseth's win once again brought comparisons of his career to that of fellow Alan Kulwicki, who was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1993, less than six months after becoming the first Wisconsin native to win what then was called the Winston Cup championship.

Although his best career finish at Daytona was fourth, kicking off what would be that same championship-winning season, Kulwicki helped blaze a trail for race car drivers from Wisconsin -- such as Kenseth, Johnny Sauter, Scott Wimmer and Paul Menard -- for the success he achieved during his far-too-short career.

Kulwicki also left Wisconsin to move to North Carolina to pursue his NASCAR dreams, eventually winning the 1992 Winston Cup title as the last owner/driver to achieve that feat. He won that title by, at that time, the smallest margin of victory in NASCAR history (10 points).

"I never really knew Alan or got to meet him," Kenseth said. "Obviously, what he did was pretty spectacular. I don't know if in this day and age anybody could do that again.

"But to be able to come down and do it the way he wanted to do it and win a championship was pretty cool, when you knew that was the first Wisconsin guy to come down from the north and win a NASCAR championship. So that was something pretty big in the state and certainly something that I paid attention to."

Kenseth grew up in Cambridge in a simple, non-descript home. Like a typical kid, he had posters of his favorite NASCAR drivers on his bedroom walls and dreamed of one day being a full-time race car driver.

But never in his wildest dreams did he think he'd one day wind up winning the sport's biggest and most important race.

"When you grow up in Wisconsin, Daytona seems a long, long, long ways away," Kenseth said. "I used to watch Daytona all the time, the Busch Clash (now the Budweiser Shootout) and the Daytona 500.

"I was fascinated with cars and engines and speed and competition and all that but really didn't think I'd ever get a chance to do this for a living. Until about an hour ago, I never really thought I'd win the Daytona 500, either."

Cambridge still takes great pride in calling Kenseth one if its own. Nor has Kenseth forgotten Cambridge. He still owns a house there, and he and wife Katie spend much of their offseason there -- he says it's their favorite place to get away from racing.

Next to racing and his family, Kenseth's biggest love is the NFL's Green Bay Packers. He's a die-hard fan, through and through.

That's why there's a certain irony that Kenseth on Sunday won a race that is called NASCAR's Super Bowl in a year when his beloved Packers didn't even make the playoffs.

After all the years he has spent cheering the Packers, it's time for them to cheer Kenseth back.

"I'm looking forward to people calling me the Daytona 500 champion," he said. "It's pretty awesome."

1 comment:

  1. Jerry,
    Thanks for the nice article on Matt. He may not be splashy but he's true to his roots. His Wisconsin fans are extremely proud and happy today.
    Fran S


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