HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When Matt Kenseth walks across the driver introduction stage this afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it might signal more than just a return from a two-race stay in NASCAR gulag.
For better or for worse, it could mark the beginning of a new career phase for a Sprint Cup star who always seemed so well-defined by a decided dearth of controversy.
Is Kenseth still the mild-mannered and reserved 2003 champion with nary a behavioral transgression in 15 previous years of laudably climbing to become one of the greatest and most respected stars of his generation?
Or is he the iconoclast rabble-rouser who is a hero to fans who love cheap shots (on social media or otherwise) and middle fingers raised to the establishment?
This would have been a laughable question three weeks ago before Kenseth intentionally crashed Joey Logano at Martinsville Speedway and doubled down in unrepentant insubordination against the powers that be in NASCAR. He taunted Brian France on Twitter, propagated the notion that his two-race suspension was tantamount to a jail sentence and vowed to return as an angrier driver hell-bent on taking no prisoners at every turn.
Kenseth has said he has no regrets for his stance, and there hardly is reason to doubt that, even after he was summoned to a Monday meeting with France.
Though both sides tried to put a happy face on whatever happened behind closed doors, the NASCAR CEO and chairman repudiated every stance posited by Kenseth in a 30-minute news conference Friday that felt more like a well-delivered rebuttal – or a rally that could have ended with France burning a “Free Matt” T-shirt in effigy.
Given how he carried himself in crisis, Kenseth might have respected that.
He has stayed true to a bullheaded and strong-willed persona, which often gets overlooked in the focus on his understated personality and exceedingly dry wit. Such misconceptions of Kenseth’s essence are commonplace. His staccato Midwestern speech is littered with pockets of broken grammar that disguises a curious intellect and a voracious appetite for reading.
Privately, he is one of the most inquisitive drivers you’ll meet in Sprint Cup. While barnstorming around the Carolinas to promote NASCAR’s playoffs last month, he picked track president Marcus Smith’s brain about the dimensions of the landfill adjacent to Charlotte Motor Speedway as if he were a meticulous surveyor from Cabarrus County.
He has a behind-the-scenes business savvy, building an impressive portfolio of personal endorsements despite his low-key style.
He also is a firm believer in right and wrong; an understated man of faith who doesn’t hesitate to make hard and swift decisions if he thinks they are worth the struggle. It hardly received attention, but his crew chiefs at Roush Fenway Racing didn’t last long if they didn’t prove they could take his estimable talent to victory lane.
All of this is the backdrop for explaining the “why” behind pile-driving Logano into the Turn 1 wall at Martinsville – a stunningly brazen move that shocked those who viewed it as wickedly at odds with the perpetrator’s muted disposition.
For Kenseth, all of the accompanying distractions and stress – including sitting at home and agonizing while truck champion and vaunted prospect Erik Jones admirably wheeled his No. 20 Toyota — were worth it because he found a measure of justice.
But yet the repercussions of Martinsville didn’t end in Final Appeals Officer Bryan Moss’ faux courtroom two weeks ago.
There will be lingering questions about what it means for Kenseth’s “brand,” a term he no doubt detests but also can’t ignore.
With each recalcitrant act of defiance, the likelihood increases that Martinsville could be the defining moment of his Hall of Fame career, or more importantly to determining his NASCAR legacy.
It once was easy to write. Kenseth is the unsung 2003 champion from small-town Cambridge, Wis., who became the unquestioned leader of Joe Gibbs Racing after an unfailingly loyal stay at Roush.
Now it could carry an asterisk – or at least an addendum: “Matt Kenseth, the calculating rebel who embraced the benefits in Pyrrhic retribution.”
Based on the raucous approval of roughly 60,000 adoring fans at Martinsville, that might be how he is remembered: As a new hero to those who like their stars rough-hewn and ill-tempered.
Maybe that’s the brand Kenseth, who once was portrayed as a robot in a sponsor’s commercial that lampooned the public’s stiff perception of him, always wanted.
But what if that fan support wanes and leaves only a black mark of blatant and classless retaliation that earned a suspension unprecedented in stiffness? What if it eventually leaves him on the wrong side of history?
It’s hard to predict where this is going to go next because the steps he has taken here have been so surprising.
It all starts today with a slow stride across a long stage in South Florida.