Matt Kenseth has spent his entire NASCAR career racing in the margins of celebrity status. He's one of the sport's most accomplished drivers of the past 13 seasons, winning 24 times since his Sprint Cup rookie year in 2000 and capturing the 2003 series title. He consistently runs in the top 10 and has made the Chase for the Championship every year except 2009.
Still, despite all his sustained success, Kenseth never lingers for long on center stage. That's partly because he doesn't seek the attention, but it's also because fate continually moves the spotlight away from Kenseth. He won Cup Rookie of the Year honors the same season that a fellow named Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into the series. (In fact, quite a few people probably think Earnhardt was the rookie of the year that season.) During Kenseth's championship season, he made it to Victory Lane only once. So even as he was proving that he was that year's best driver, the primary focus week after week often went elsewhere.
This year has been a prime example of how Kenseth's racing ability continually gets overshadowed. He won the Daytona 500, a race that forever will be remembered for Juan Pablo Montoya slamming into a jet dryer and igniting a fireball that caused a two-hour delay. Earlier in October Kenseth took the checkered flag at Talladega as all the attention was focused on a 25-car melee behind him. Then just this past weekend Kenseth's victory at Kansas was mostly a footnote in a race dominated by talk of a slick track, spinning cars and a deadlocked Chase race.
It's always been this way for Kenseth. He won seven times during his two seasons in the Nationwide Series in 1998 and 1999, the same two years that Earnhardt won 13 races and back-to-back Nationwide championships. As the duo prepared to make the move to Cup racing in 2000, they were asked to pose together for a photo shoot. The photographer wanted Kenseth to stand behind Earnhardt and slightly to one side of him, so Kenseth was partially obscured.
"They were trying to get this cool look, and they kept having me move farther over and over behind him where you couldn't see all of my face," Kenseth recalled with a smile earlier this year. "Finally I said, 'Look, why don't I just leave.'"
Actually, leaving is the one thing that has brought attention to Kenseth this season. It was announced in late June that Kenseth will depart Roush Fenway Racing at the end of this season after 14 years with the organization to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing. The move caught most people by surprise, primarily because the low-key Kenseth had always seemed content to stay in the comfort zone he had created at Roush.
Kenseth never has been specific about why he is leaving Roush, though money undoubtedly has something to do with it. When asked about the situation last month, Kenseth replied, "Timing really is everything. There have been a lot of changes over there [at RFR], going into this year being in the last year of my contract -- trying to get sponsorship secured and trying to figure out what was going on for sure. [...] I got into May and still didn't really have anything done and weren't even really talking about a whole bunch of stuff. I had this opportunity come up with Joe and JD [Gibbs] talking to me about coming over there and racing. And it was something that really interested me a lot."
Some might claim the decision cost Kenseth a shot at this year's Sprint Cup championship. The announcement that he was leaving came out just before the race at Kentucky Speedway. He finished seventh in that race and third a week later at Daytona, leaving him atop the series point standings. Then Kenseth hit a major slump, managing only three top-10 finishes and one top-5 over the next 13 races. When he left Dover with a 35th-place finish on Sept. 30, Kenseth was last in the standings among the 12 Chase drivers, his title hopes gone just three races into the Chase.
It is hard to believe that the timing of Kenseth's downturn in performance was entirely a coincidence. There had to be at least a minor distraction to both driver and crew, and in Sprint Cup racing these days it doesn't take much to drop a team from fifth to 25th. But all along, Kenseth bristled at the suggestion that his impending departure affected the team's commitment to the remainder of the 2012 season.
"I don't really like that 'lame duck' term," Kenseth said. "There are guys who sign one-year contracts. So are they a lame duck before they even start? So I don't like that. I think our approach is the same. We go out every week with the idea of trying to win races."
Lately, Kenseth has been doing precisely that by winning two of the past three Sprint Cup events. Brad Keselowski is the only other driver with two Chase victories this season, while past champions Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon remain winless. After Sunday's victory at Kansas, Kenseth became teary-eyed in Victory Lane, and later sounded sentimental during his post-race news conference as he talked about the people at Roush Fenway and how it is "a pleasure" to drive the cars they provide.
It was a rare display of any sort of emotion from the normally stoic Kenseth, a personal side that racing analyst and former Cup champ Rusty Wallace would like Kenseth to show more often.
"I wish he was more outgoing, because we'd be talking about him a lot more," Wallace said. "But he's such a silent fellow who really doesn't say much."
Maybe Kenseth will talk more than usual early next season as he begins his new career with Joe Gibbs Racing. But after the initial flurry of attention, it likely won't take long for a controversy or a driver feud or a major wreck to once again steal the focus. The headlines will go to others, and Kenseth will return to doing what he seemingly always does: Quietly winning races and contending for a championship.
"I'm not really in it for the recognition or credit or any of that stuff anyway," Kenseth said. "We could all dissect my personality or my looks or what I say, what I do, don't say, don't do, and pick on that, I guess. Maybe there's something I'm not doing right or saying right or whatever. I've been in the sport for quite a while. I've always just tried to be myself and never really change for anybody. I'm pretty much a face-value guy. I don't think that's been a bad thing."