VETERAN NASCAR STOCK CAR DRIVER, Matt Kenseth, may be best known for his conclusive 2009 victory in the Daytona 500. But Kenseth’s career goes way back. He started racing on short tracks in Wisconsin, and he won track championships at Madison International Speedway, Slinger Super Speedway and Wisconsin International Raceway. Kenseth competed in the the ARTGO, American Speed Association, and Hooters Late Model touring series before making it to the NASCAR Busch Series (now Nationwide Series). After finishing second and third in the Busch Series (now Nationwide Series), he moved to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series (later NEXTEL Cup Series and now Sprint Cup Series), and won the series’ Rookie of the Year title in 2000 and the championship in 2003.
Ford’s Number 17 is set to drive again this Sunday, February 26th at the 54th Annual Daytona 500, in Daytona Beach, Florida. TSJ catches up with him before his big weekend.
TSJ: So what are are your hopes for this weekend’s race?
MK: Like any race, [you want] to win it. But if you can’t, you try to make sure you don’t get your car tore up–you bring your best car for the 500, get qualified, run 150-milers and hopefully learn stuff for the 500. At the same time you want to not get it tore up where you have to use a backup car or something like that.
TSJ: I read that your dad got you into racing.
MK: My dad has three brothers and they all raced when he was younger, at the track up in Wisconsin. When I got a little older, I guess I was 13, my dad bought a car and we worked on it together. He drove it and I worked on it after school, since he owned his own business and worked lots. So we kind of learned to work on it together and go to the tracks together. [It was] something for us to do [that was] constructive and [a way to] spend time together.
TSJ: And then somewhere along the way it became your career.
MK: Pretty much, yeah. I got real fortunate. Once I started driving, I just won at the local track that we could afford to race at, and thankfully some people saw me race and let me drive their cars at places in different series that we couldn’t really afford to race at ourselves, and it kind of moved up from there.
TSJ: Talk to me about speed. How fast do you go?
MK: It depends on the racetrack. The size and shape of the racetrack really limits that. This week at Daytona it’s a different sort of race, it’s a restrictive race and we do a lot of drafting [slipstreaming]. We run between 200 and 205 miles an hour, pretty much, something like that. Just going fast, by itself, after you’ve been doing this for a long time, maybe it’s not that exciting. The exciting part is the competition; trying to win and trying to go faster than the rest of the guys.
TSJ: I’ve never competed in any kind of sports event, but I’ve done other stuff, like music, where there’s a lot going on pretty fast, but you can sort of slow stuff down, and break down in your mind what’s going on, and that helps you react well. Is that something that’s happening for you when you’re racing?
MK: You’re making split-second decisions. I think it’s something that either comes natural or it doesn’t. I think if it doesn’t come natural you’ll probably never make it at this level. So yeah, you make split-second decisions, and sometimes they’re wrong. Hopefully more often than not they’re right. But it does kind of slow down for you; it doesn’t really seem like you’re reacting that fast. It’s something you see happening most of the time. And hopefully you wind up making the right move and you can make it through.
TSJ: What’s your strategy on the racetrack?
MK: Every racetrack, and every place you race at, you do a lot of drafting. When you go to Phoenix you have to slow way down in the corners, so every track is a little bit different but the end result is the same. Your strategy is to be the first one to cross the finish line.
TSJ: What are your plans for racing in the future?
MK: That’s hard to say. This is one of those businesses like any sport; it’s a performance business. You have to perform each and every week, and each and every year. I try never to feel too secure in where I’m at in my job and my situation. You just try to go each and every week and try to be your best and try to perform the best you can and keep going from there.
TSJ: You’re driving a Ford Fusion, sponsored by Best Buy. How do you like driving American cars?
MK: I’ve been driving Fords a long time. I’ve been in the Cup Series since 2000; I ran my first race all the way back in ’98, and I drove Fords the whole time. Ford’s a great company.
Watch Matt Kenseth race this Sunday, February 26 at 1 pm ET on FOX.
NASCAR CONTEST: If Matt Kenseth wins the race this weekend, one lucky reader could join me to attend the All Star race in Charlotte, N.C., in May. Just Tweet us @ThisIsTSJ or write, in the comments below, what your driver nickname would be! Good luck!