NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth and Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox had a lot in common -- both were champions and put up impressive career numbers, but never got the credit they truly deserved.
Just as Konerko could always be counted on for hitting more than 30 home runs and batting nearly .300 every season, Kenseth was usually good for one Sprint Cup victory and earning a position in the Chase for the Championship nearly every season.
But wait a minute, 2011 is shaping up differently for the No. 17. Kenseth now has two victories this season after his impressive win at Dover this past Sunday, tying him with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch for most Cup wins. And while that second win virtually assures him a spot in the Chase, Kenseth may have a few more trips to Victory Lane left in him this season and could be one of the year's big surprises.
Kenseth does his job dutifully and quietly. He does not generate intrigue like Kyle Busch nor does he have the fan following of Dale Earnhardt Jr. At Roush Fenway Racing, teammate Carl Edwards gets all of the attention of being one of NASCAR's biggest stars while Kenseth races in relative obscurity.
He is a so-called "Racer's Racer" who started his career on the short tracks of Wisconsin before coming south to join NASCAR. His first career victory in what is now the Nationwide Series was one of the most exciting races he has ever driven. He punted race-leader Tony Stewart out of the way in the last turn of the last lap to take the checkered flag at Rockingham, N.C., in 1998 in a rare instance of calculated aggression.
Kenseth would battle Earnhardt Jr. for the championship in that series in 1998 and 1999, falling just short of the title. Both drivers moved up to Cup in 2000, and although Earnhardt generated most of the attention and was the first to score a victory his rookie season, Kenseth actually won the Rookie of the Year title.
Kenseth's biggest claim to fame is that NASCAR changed the rules that determine the Cup champion after his uninspiring 2003 title run, during which he had just one victory but clinched the championship with one race remaining on the schedule. Kenseth led the standings for an unprecedented 33 consecutive races. He had a series of consistent top-5 and top-10 finishes. So enter the "Matt Kenseth Rule," officially known as the Chase for the Championship, which was implemented in 2004 with 10 drivers contending for the title over the final 10 races of the season. That field would increase to 12 drivers in 2007.
If there is a moral to the Kenseth story it's that hard work pays off and success in NASCAR isn't always based on popularity. And with two victories in the first 11 races this season, Kenseth could be putting together one of the best seasons of his career.
"It is going to be important and you want the wins if you have to fall back on that," Kenseth said. "On my mind is to be up there and try to lead those points going into the Chase and try to make the Chase and be in championship form and be able to put together more wins and race for a championship. We don't want to have to slide in off of wins if we are 18th in points or something. We want to go up there and race like this every week."
Moving forward, Kenseth could continue this momentum into the early summer, which can only solidify his position in the standings.
"Once in awhile if you have a bad finish but are running good then you feel better about it and it gives you hope that you can have days like today," Kenseth said. "I think for sure this is the most competitive we've been since this car was introduced, however long that's been. The whole organization has been building better, faster race cars.
"Doug Yates and those guys in the engine shop have done a wonderful job having the offseason to work on the FR9 [engine] to get us some more power and the durability along with it. That's made a big difference, as well. It's the first season that [crew chief] Jimmy Fennig and I are doing the Cup thing together, had the wintertime to get things how he wanted it at the shop, build the cars the way he wanted it.
"I feel good today obviously but who knows what next week is going to bring? I feel pretty good about it now because even some of the bad finishes we had, we still perform much better than we have in the past. We perform better at more places than we have. It really feels for sure like we're on the right track."