Bruce Martin
Friday February 1st, 2008

CONCORD, North Carolina -- Matt Kenseth is not only the most underrated driver in NASCAR, but he may also be the most underrated athlete in all of sports.

He is NASCAR's version of Paul Konerko.

In case that name doesn't ring a bell, consider that Konerko puts up big numbers for the Chicago White Sox every season and led his team to its first World Series title in 88 years in 2005. But Konerko has always been overshadowed by Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez or any other big-time player in Major League Baseball.

Admit it, Konerko could walk into the supermarket and no one would notice.

The same can be said for Kenseth, who could have been the subject of Joe Walsh's song Ordinary Average Guy.

All Kenseth has accomplished is winning 16 races, earning the 2000 Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award when he outshined the more popular Dale Earnhardt Jr., winning the Cup title in 2003 and becoming one of only two drivers to make "The Chase for the Championship" every season since it began in 2004.

Two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is the other to make "The Chase" every year since its inception.

Despite his success, Kenseth can still go out in public and enjoy anonymity.

"I enjoy that a lot," Kenseth said. "I just like doing normal things, and I fit in with normal people pretty well. When I go to Green Bay Packers games, a lot of people recognize me and come up and say hi, but everyone is cool and I fit into that environment.

"Everybody likes doing different stuff, or likes to go on TV more, or likes to do different things. Maybe I don't. I like to be low-key and that hasn't changed in my life."

Other than the fact his bank account is much bigger, Kenseth isn't much different than when he was a young driver in Cambridge, Wisconsin.

Since he made his Cup debut by running five races in 1999, he's raced his way to $49,358,563 in winnings.

He finished second in the standings behind Johnson in 2006 and fourth last year.

He even won the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but was barely mentioned because the spotlight was on Johnson winning back-to-back championships, and Jeff Gordon falling short in his bid to become a five-time Cup champion.

That didn't matter to Kenseth, though. He took the trophy and the check, climbed on the plane with his wife, Katie, and flew back to North Carolina.

But regardless of the media hoopla, the lack of attention surely has to make Kenseth feel a bit underrated, right?

"Underrated? I don't really know how I'm rated," Kenseth said. "I really don't care, either. I try to be myself and whatever people's perception of me is what it is. It's important for me to run well and try to win. That's all I ever care about.

"I would rather be underrated than overrated any day. If you are overrated, all you can really do is disappoint. If you are underrated all you can do is surprise people. That's probably a good thing."

Kenseth is your typical "blue-collar" racer. He should appeal to the workingman who carries a lunch to work every day rather than having a business luncheon at a high-class restaurant.

That might be, in part, due to his Wisconsin upbringing.

The whole state of Wisconsin seems to be Kenseth fans.

While Kenseth doesn't get the credit he deserves in the rest of the United States, he is the "Favorite Son" in his home state.

"I don't know if that is quite exactly true but Wisconsin fans in general are really loyal and enthusiastic about their sports and the guys they stand behind," he said.

"It's really cool to go up there and see 17s on the back of cars. When I do events or fan clubs a bunch of people show up there and that means a lot. It's always a little overwhelming, surprising and a huge compliment. They are a really loyal, great group of people there."

Kenseth is a big Green Bay Packers fan and his favorite player is Brett Favre -- not exactly a shocker there.

"He is my football hero," Kenseth admitted. "A lot of professional athletes come in these days, the money is there and I'm not so sure they necessarily play for the love of the game as some people used to.

"When you see him throw a touchdown pass and get out and throw a snowball at his receiver, that's pretty cool for being his age and how long he's been doing it. I love watching the kid in him and the passion he has for the game.

"I have that passion, but to see somebody inside the car is a little different. If I didn't have passion and enthusiasm for what I was doing, I wouldn't do it."

Even with his love for the Packers, Kenseth displayed the same common sense he uses in the race car when even he admitted it was too cold to watch the NFC Championship at frigid Lambeau Field two weeks ago and stayed at home to watch the New York Giants beat his Packers.

"It would have been colder than my couch was," Kenseth said. "I wanted to go. I went to about six games this year. The week before against the Seattle Seahawks they had the big snow and all the crazy stuff that went on there, being behind 14-0 and coming back and winning. That was very exciting. It was probably the coolest game I've ever been to."

Kenseth's triumphs behind the wheel and his appreciation of other highly touted athletes haven't done it. Not even the admirable qualities he sees in athletes like Favre and tries to embody have worked for Kenseth. So what could break this driver out of relative anonymity?

"In my first Daytona 500 in 2000 we finished 10th, but my best memory was just walking around on pit road knowing we were part of that race, that's the biggest stock car race there is," Kenseth recalled. "As a kid you dream about being in that race. To make the race and get it started is my best memory.

Perhaps the 50th Daytona 500 title on Feb. 17 will push him over the obscurity hump. Perhaps it would be a win that would become memorable for both Kenseth and NASCAR fans.

But just like Konerko's World Series title and still-lacking popularity, a Daytona victory may bolster Kenseth's NASCAR resume while his star power continues to trail those of his counterparts.

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