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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: Matt Kenseth puts controversy, competition in rearview mirror 

  • Matt Kenseth waves the checkered flag from his driver's seat after winning the Sylvania Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Matt Kenseth waves the checkered flag from his driver's seat after winning the Sylvania Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Clint Bowyer gives a hat to a young fan. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Clint Bowyer gives a hat to a young fan. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • A fan signs the track. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    A fan signs the track. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Crew members push Matt Kenseth's no. 20 car to the starting line. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Crew members push Matt Kenseth's no. 20 car to the starting line. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Matt Truex Jr. stands near his car before the start of the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Matt Truex Jr. stands near his car before the start of the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Jeff Gordon stands with his wife Ingrid Vandebosch next to his car before the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Jeff Gordon stands with his wife Ingrid Vandebosch next to his car before the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Drivers follow the pace car at the start of the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Drivers follow the pace car at the start of the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Jamie McMurray ends up backward before Kevin Swindell collided with his no. 1 car. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Jamie McMurray ends up backward before Kevin Swindell collided with his no. 1 car. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Flames linger on tires swapped from Jeff Gordon's no. 24 car. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Flames linger on tires swapped from Jeff Gordon's no. 24 car. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Jeff Gordon finished fifteenth. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Jeff Gordon finished fifteenth. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Matt Kenseth celebrates after winning the Sylvania Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Matt Kenseth celebrates after winning the Sylvania Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Wendy Law of BBE & TCC, an event services company, works to wrangle balloons before the start of the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    Wendy Law of BBE & TCC, an event services company, works to wrangle balloons before the start of the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • The pit crew for Martin Truex Jr. jumps into action while their driver briefly held the lead during the Sylvania Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013. Truex fell out of the Chase for the Spring Cup field after trying to fix a race at Richmond International Raceway on September 7.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

    The pit crew for Martin Truex Jr. jumps into action while their driver briefly held the lead during the Sylvania Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013. Truex fell out of the Chase for the Spring Cup field after trying to fix a race at Richmond International Raceway on September 7.

    (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

  • Matt Kenseth waves the checkered flag from his driver's seat after winning the Sylvania Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Clint Bowyer gives a hat to a young fan. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • A fan signs the track. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Crew members push Matt Kenseth's no. 20 car to the starting line. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Matt Truex Jr. stands near his car before the start of the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Jeff Gordon stands with his wife Ingrid Vandebosch next to his car before the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Drivers follow the pace car at the start of the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Jamie McMurray ends up backward before Kevin Swindell collided with his no. 1 car. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Flames linger on tires swapped from Jeff Gordon's no. 24 car. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Jeff Gordon finished fifteenth. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Matt Kenseth celebrates after winning the Sylvania Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • Wendy Law of BBE & TCC, an event services company, works to wrangle balloons before the start of the race. The Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race was held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
  • The pit crew for Martin Truex Jr. jumps into action while their driver briefly held the lead during the Sylvania Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 NASCAR stock car race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, September 22, 2013. Truex fell out of the Chase for the Spring Cup field after trying to fix a race at Richmond International Raceway on September 7.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

NASCAR’s public relations machine got just what it needed yesterday at the Sprint Cup race in Loudon.

The winner, Matt Kenseth, choked up while addressing the 100,000 fans at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He also thanked the lord for his good fortune.

And, as a rule, Kenseth keeps his quotes clean, and he steers clear of any and all controversy.

What better ambassador to help reshape the sport’s image? What better way to leave the scandal from two weeks ago in Virginia at Richmond International Raceway behind, like exhaust in the wind?

“I would have never dreamed this, especially here at New Hampshire,” Kenseth said during a post-race press conference. “This track has always been such a struggle. It’s a great track and they have great fans here. I think we have more fans here than anywhere we go, and it’s always fun racing in front of a big crowd. . . . I don’t really even have the words to describe it.”

And this was Kenseth’s 500 Cup start. The only other driver who ever won his 500th start was Richard Petty.

The King. Perfect. Just what the doctor ordered.

It didn’t start out this way. Not after we learned this weekend that a big-time sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, had severed ties with Michael Waltrip Racing, a big-time race team, owned by a man with a really famous surname.

And so, while the Chase for the Sprint Cup began last weekend in Chicago, the issue chased the drivers here.

The penalties rocked racing after driver Clint Bowyer wrecked on purpose, another driver, Brian Vickers, pitted unnecessarily, and two teams, Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing, allegedly formed an unholy alliance.

Why? To manipulate the final Richmond results, opening slots to the Chase for certain drivers. Bowyer’s spin brought out a caution, allowing Martin Truex Jr. to qualify for the Chase. Ryan Newman, leading when the shenanigans began with seven laps left, was pushed out.

Not so fast, though. Later, Truex and Bowyer, Waltrip drivers, were docked 50 points, meaning that Truex hadn’t made the Chase after all. Also, Jeff Gordon was added to the Chase field because Vickers’s pit had nudged him out.

Meanwhile, NAPA’s announcement meant the loss of roughly $20 million to a high-profile team. It meant the potential loss of dozens of jobs. It meant that Truex, a major talent, will probably move elsewhere next year.

Thank goodness for Kenseth, who won the title in 2003 and who’s won seven races this season.

He built a road block against negative publicity, at least for now. His car was too good, too fast. He was up front all day, always in the mix, lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce.

He took the lead on lap 153 and held it for 106 laps overall.

“Certainly we were never as fast this weekend as the 20 (Kenseth) car,” said Kyle Busch, Kenseth’s teammate on Joe Gibbs Racing. “They just had a special car. Sometimes you unload with them, and they’re just phenomenal. The 20 had that here this weekend. We tried everything to keep up with him and to get pace with him, but it was tough to do.”

Busch came closer than anyone, finishing second.

But imagine if Truex had won or placed high, after he was expelled from the Chase? He led 98 laps, but finished 10th. And imagine if Bowyer had won, after spinning on purpose back at Richmond? He led five laps and placed 17th.

If either of those scenarios happens over the last two months, the scandal will resurface full force, because the driver most affected by Waltrip’s decision to tamper with race results will have made an impact on the championship.

From the start, Kenseth wanted no part of any of this. When it comes to edgy stuff, he never does.

“I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes things,” Kenseth said Friday morning, shortly after the NAPA news broke. “Kind of on purpose, I guess, so I don’t have to comment on it that much. I still haven’t watched the Richmond race or really seen even the highlights. . . . I was hoping after we got to race at Chicago, all that stuff was in the rearview mirror.”

Yesterday, Kenseth helped put it there.

It’s a topic no one wants to address, and as long as drivers such as Kenseth win through the final eight races in the Chase, with his good-guy image and wholesome demeanor, the Richmond fiasco can remain in the background, at least somewhat.

Busch, for one, wouldn’t take the bait when asked about the positive impact of having someone like Kenseth win, rather than a driver connected to the scandal.

He did not appreciate the question. He turned to Kerry Tharp, NASCAR’s senior director of competition communications, and cracked in his best sarcastic manner:

“I don’t know. Kerry, are you guys picking who wins every weekend? I don’t think it matters. Whoever is the fastest car wins, and the last two weeks it’s been the fastest car that wins, so I think it’s good.”

When I tried to be clearer, Busch’s engine caught fire.

“I know what you’re saying,” he said. “Move on.”

After yesterday’s race, Kenseth made that easy to do.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@
cmonitor.com or on Twitter
@RayDuckler.)

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