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NASCAR: Kenseth win a tough sell

Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. ó Matt Kenseth is not boring or bland. Get to know him a bit, and one might find he’s actually rather funny.
Sure, he’s a bit quiet in a crowd. But the driver with a dry wit is also calm, consistent and a very classy NASCAR champion. He just won’t sell any tickets.
That’s the conundrum NASCAR faces following Kenseth’s win in Sunday’s rain-shortened Daytona 500. It was a popular victory inside the garage, where the 2003 NASCAR champion is regarded as one of the good guys.
Outside of that bubble, though, Kenseth is no threat to challenge Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s reign as most popular driver. Fans will never root against him the way they do Kyle Busch, and, it’s a good bet unproven 18-year-old Joey Logano will draw more interest than the well-established Kenseth.
And interest is what NASCAR needs more than anything, particularly as the sport moves West this week into the less-than-enthusiastic Los Angeles market.
A thrilling Daytona 500 finish and a dynamic winner would have been akin to a winning lottery ticket for Gillian Zucker, who try as she might just can’t catch a break as president of beleaguered Auto Club Speedway.
Give her Junior, Jeff or Jimmie to parade through her market all week, she might be able to move some tickets.
Instead she’s got Kenseth, a guy so steely that the rare emotion he showed after the victory likely will be the lasting image of this year’s race.
It isn’t fair, though, for anyone to be disappointed by Kenseth’s victory or the anticlimactic end to NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
Calling the race 115 miles short of completion was not ideal for anyone, particularly for a sanctioning body desperately needing a strong kickoff to the season after months of economic turmoil. NASCAR, despite the strong health of the overall organization, is saddled with a “the sky is falling” perception because the economic crisis has hit some independent team owners harder than others.
The only stimulus package with any shot at settling the storm is on the track, where good, hard racing can cure most ills.
That’s what people got Sunday ó at least for 152 laps. Everyone knew all week that rain would threaten the big event, so the entire day was a race against Mother Nature. The 3:40 EST start time left people standing around waiting for the action and wondering why, if the rain was coming, weren’t they racing while it was still dry?
When the green flag finally fell, it became a race to the halfway point that makes it an official event. The racing was calm, with drivers just trying to avoid trouble through the first 100 laps. Then it got interesting. Whoever was leading when the rain came had an excellent chance of claiming the $1.5 million grand prize.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., down a lap because two mental errors in the pits had taken him out of contention, had to turn it up a notch to have any shot at victory. It led to an aggressive jostling for position with Brian Vickers that triggered a nine-car accident.
Busch, who declared after he was “100 percent” certain he was going to win the race, was collateral damage and wound up wrecked after leading a race-high 88 laps. On a scale of 1 to 10, Busch placed his disappointment at 15 and was likely seething at Earnhardt.
Vickers was, too, and couldn’t quite understand why NASCAR didn’t penalize Earnhardt for aggressive driving. One day earlier, Jason Leffler was parked for five laps for intentionally causing a wreck, but Earnhardt escaped a similar fate because NASCAR said his actions weren’t deliberate.
That’s the extent of the Daytona drama, all of it overshadowing Kenseth’s slide past Elliott Sadler a half-lap before caution came out and the field was frozen for the final time. The rain had finally arrived.
It took NASCAR less than 20 minutes to decide to call it, because officials knew it would rain for at least an hour and take three hours beyond that to dry the track.
So that’s how Kenseth won his first Daytona 500, and why everyone but him felt a little flat following the race.
There’s no one obvious person to blame for the letdown. Maybe Fox for insisting on a late afternoon start that backed NASCAR into a corner in terms of waiting out the rain. Or maybe Earnhardt, for starting an accident that wiped out Busch, the class of the field.
But even if Busch had still been around when the race was finally called, the anticlimactic ending would not have changed.
Some may use the Daytona 500 as an example to avoid this weekend’s race in California, maybe even write off the entire season. But tuning out because Kenseth isn’t exciting or weather spoiled the day isn’t fair.
The show will go on, NASCAR will guarantee that, and maybe just maybe, next week will be a little bit better.

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