MATT KENSETH is a worrier. Since the earliest days of his racing career, on those teenage Saturday nights on the short tracks of his native Wisconsin, Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, has always found something to fret over. Should he change two tires or four on this pit stop? Does he have enough fuel to make it to the finish? In the days leading up to the 51st running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, what ate at Kenseth was his 36-race winless streak. On the eve of NASCAR's grandest event, he was lounging in his motor coach in the infield of Daytona International Speedway with his wife, Katie, when his self-doubt got the best of him. "I'm tired of not being a contender anymore," Kenseth, 36, told Katie. "I'm tired of not winning. Maybe I'm starting to lose it."
Or maybe not. On Lap 146 of 200 in Sunday night's race, with storm clouds approaching the speedway carrying the rain that had been expected all day, Kenseth sped along the front stretch at 190 mph behind leader Elliott Sadler. Kenseth's crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, had radioed his driver minutes earlier telling him that bad weather was imminent and that it was time to test the limits of his race car. Kenseth did. After following Sadler on the high line into Turn 1, he dove low and received a push from the 2007 winner, Kevin Harvick, which thrust Kenseth past Sadler and into the lead. Moments later Aric Almirola, running amid heavy traffic back in the pack, spun into the infield, sending up the caution flag. Raindrops then started falling on the 2.5-mile speedway, and NASCAR ordered the cars onto pit road.
For 17 minutes Kenseth sat behind the wheel of his number 17 Roush Fenway DeWalt Ford unsure, as the rain drummed on the roof, whether the race was over. This wasn't how he had envisioned winning his first Daytona 500 back when he was 13 and his father bought him his first race car, a Camaro. But when a team member appeared at the window and told him that NASCAR had declared him the victor, Kenseth, the most stoic driver in the sport, climbed from his car and did something in front of the cameras and notebooks that he'd never done in his 10-year Cup career: He wept. "Matt doesn't let people see the emotional side of him," said Katie as she stood in Victory Lane answering more than 50 congratulatory text messages on her cellphone. "But he'll cry even before I do when we watch a sad movie. I think he's letting it out now because this dry spell has been so hard on him. He started to second-guess himself. I mean, he's not one of the young guys in the sport anymore."
True, Kenseth is no longer a Young Gun—in fact Gillette replaced him three years ago in its ad campaign of that name with his teammates, Carl Edwards, then 26 and Jamie McMurray, 29—but he's well positioned to make another championship run. Kenseth's owner, Jack Roush, overhauled the number 17 team after it finished 11th in the final standings last season, its worst finish since 2001. In December, Roush promoted Blickensderfer, who had guided Edwards to seven victories in the Nationwide Series last year. Chip Bolin moved from crew chief to lead engineer ("This gives us two guys with experience being crew chiefs," says Kenseth) and Kenseth's spotter from his championship season, Mike Calinoff, returned to the team. "Last year I let Matt down," says Roush. "We didn't manage to get the organization of his team right. Matt did everything he needed to do, but we didn't get it right for him."
Though Kenseth's signature skill—the ability to avoid wrecks and conserve his equipment—doesn't cause fans to leap out of their seats, it served him well on Sunday. On Lap 124 every driver's worst Daytona nightmare unfolded directly in front of Kenseth when the Big One erupted. As Kenseth hurtled down the backstretch in fourth place, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevy came up fast behind Brian Vickers' Toyota, with both drivers a lap down and running beside the leaders. Vickers moved down to block Earnhardt, who veered back to the right and clipped Vickers. A heartbeat later Kenseth could see several out-of-control cars in his path, including the number 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch, who had led 88 of the first 120 laps and appeared to be the driver to beat.
Barreling into a cloud of smoke and spinning cars, Kenseth kept his foot on the gas and swerved to his left, missing Vickers by less than a foot as Vickers slammed into Busch, who slammed into the wall. Ten cars were involved in the wreck, but not the number 17. This was Kenseth at his best.
"Matt just doesn't make mistakes, man," said Earnhardt, one of Kenseth's closest friends, as he walked along pit road after the race, still reeling from his role in the wreck. "He's cold-blooded out there. He'll come within an inch of you and then somehow not cause any problems. If that team is right, and it looks like they are, he'll be a contender for the title this season."
As will Busch, who was blunt in his assessment of the way his race ended. "It's just unfortunate that two guys got together that were a lap down and were fighting over nothing," he said.
Though this was Roush's first victory in his 22 years of competing in the Great American Race, it reaffirmed an old motor sports axiom: Money buys speed. Last season the four richest teams in NASCAR—Roush Fenway, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing—combined to win 32 of the 36 races and filled all 12 slots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the season's 10-race playoff. The gulf between the sport's haves and have-nots has never been wider, but the days of underfunded, single-car teams running nose-to-nose with the powerhouse organizations haven't completely gone the way of the open-faced driver's helmet. Wood Brothers Racing, the feel-good story of the fortnight of practice and racing known as Speedweeks, proved as much at Daytona.
Some history: The Wood Brothers formed in 1950 and were one of NASCAR's pioneer teams. They've won 96 Cup races, but none since 2001. With the off-season merger of Petty Enterprises—another organization that goes back half a century—and Gillett Evernham Motorsports, the Wood Brothers are the oldest team in NASCAR, and the last link to the era when a driver and his pit crew of drinking buddies could show up at the track on a shoestring budget and, using guts and guile, win the race.
"The Wood Brothers are the Green Bay Packers of our sport," says Richard Petty. "They are the guys who built NASCAR into what it is today."
But the sinking economy has hit the Wood Brothers hard, forcing the team to trim its number of employees from 65 to 42 in the off-season. "We looked for 2009 sponsor money for months, and we had a very hard time finding anything," says Eddie Wood, age 56, who co-owns the team with his brother Len, 52, sister Kim Hall, 47, and father, Glen, 83. "The slump in the economy has especially hurt the small teams in the sport, because there's just no sponsor money out there right now for us."
Indeed, the number of teams in the Cup series that have enough sponsorship to run a full 36-race schedule, which costs an estimated $20 to $25 million per car, has shrunk from 43 last year to 34. After failing to secure a full-time sponsor for '09, the Wood Brothers in January signed Motorcraft to back them for nine races. Eddie Wood then persuaded 53-year-old Bill Elliott, the 1988 Cup champ who'd been semiretired since 2004, to pilot his famed number 21 Ford. The team arrived in Daytona not on private jets (as several owners did) or on team-owned planes (as the Big Four organizations did) but in cars that they had driven from Charlotte.
"It's tough, man, because we don't have the help that other teams do, and I don't have any teammates out there to lean on for information," says Elliott. "But we're a bunch of old school racers, and we just try to figure things out on the fly."
Though the team boasts only three engineers—Hendrick Motorsports, by contrast, has more than 50 on its payroll—Elliott roared to the top of the speed charts in back-to-back practice sessions the day before qualifying. He then ran the fifth-fastest qualifying lap, outdoing the likes of Kenseth and Hendrick stars Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. This was a case study in how ingenuity in NASCAR can still trump resources. "I've had to hire guys who can do multiple things and do them well," Eddie Wood says. "I can't just have a guy who's only, say, a fabricator. He also needs to be a part of the pit crew or do something else that's valuable. This economy has taught us that we can't be specialized anymore. This is how we used to do it, and hopefully we can create a new model for how smaller teams can be successful."
On Sunday, Elliott, like Kenseth, deftly avoided the Big One and finished 23rd, which put him ahead of Johnson (31st) and defending 500 champ Ryan Newman (36th). When the race was called, Elliott's crew members celebrated as if they'd won, exchanging hugs and handshakes in their pit box. The team is hoping that by simply making the race, which they failed to do last year, they'll get a second look from potential sponsors. And who would be the biggest winner if the Wood Brothers were to recapture some of their past glory? NASCAR. Since 2005, television ratings are down 21%. Daytona was sold out on Sunday, but even NASCAR officials privately expect attendance figures to tumble this season because of the economy. An underdog team rising up would be a desperately needed shot of adrenaline for the sport.
"Everyone in the garage is rooting for the Wood Brothers," says Chad Knaus, the crew chief for Johnson. "They already overcame a lot just making the 500. If they can keep building, it would be quite a story."
On Sunday evening, though, the story was Kenseth. As he walked through the infield from one TV interview to the next, he had already found something new to worry about: Performing well on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. "In the big picture of the [Cup] championship, winning at Daytona doesn't really mean too much," Kenseth said. "Next week is when the real season starts. But this gets us going on the right path. Hopefully, this is just a preview of what's to come for us."
"Matt just doesn't make mistakes, man," said Earnhardt. "HE'S COLD-BLOODED OUT THERE. He'll be a contender for the title this season."
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Photograph by Mark Young/AP
CRUNCH TIME When Earnhardt (88) and Vickers (83) collided, Kenseth (yellow and black, beside Army car) came through unscathed, then soaked up the win (below).
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BARE BONES Elliott (above, left, with crewman Mike Smith) and the Wood Brothers struck a blow for the little guys.
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
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PASS TIME With rain coming, Kenseth (17) took the low line under Sadler (19) to grab the lead and his first win since '07.
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POSTMORTEM After his hopes for a victory died in the Big One, Busch had harsh words for Earnhardt and Vickers.