WASHINGTON, D.C. – For the time being, Matt Kenseth plans to keep his day job.
But it’s apparent that the former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is as comfortable with a microphone in his hand as a steering wheel.
Staying classy throughout a guest appearance at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, Kenseth did more than sign autographs and take photos with fans within eyeshot of the Capital dome. He handled a wide-ranging Q & A with aplomb, then tried his hand at news broadcasting, doing his best Ron Burgundy imitation at the media museum’s Anchorman exhibit.
“I’m a big Will Ferrell fan,” said Kenseth, who also spent nearly a half hour in a talk show setting at the Newseum’s Knight Theater, tackling the questions from Richmond International Raceway president Dennis Bickmeier (an Ohio University School of Journalism grad who served as program host) as well as inquisitive fans.
“I feel like Jimmy Fallon,” said Bickmeier, whose track sponsored Kenseth’s appearance at the Newseum – an interactive museum of news and journalism – ahead of Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at RIR.
The Newseum is full of serious stuff, from part of the Berlin Wall to a piece of radio tower from the World Trade Center – a centerpiece of a stunning and thought-provoking 9/11 exhibit. But Kenseth kept things light during his visit, checking out the interactive exhibits designed for students and mingling with young fans.
Kenseth knows a thing or two about museums. In fact, his name is on one – the Matt Kenseth Racing Museum in his hometown of Cambridge, Wisc.
Managed by his sister Kelly, Kenseth’s museum features the requisite fire suits, trophies and cars including Kenseth’s first race car, his IROC championship car and his Sprint Cup championship car from 2003.
Kenseth says his prize possessions are his two Daytona 500 championship trophies.
“They’re hard to get,” he says. “My real Winston Cup trophy is at home, but I’ve got a duplicate in the museum.
“I never used to really be into history or museums at all, but I am a little more now. In our business, you’re only as good as your last race. When you’re in the moment it’s hard to take a lot of time to enjoy it. We’re programmed not to bask in (success) too long because you’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Not only a Toyota driver, but a member of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, Kenseth is on sacred ground whenever he races in the D.C./Richmond metro area where Gibbs is legendary as the three-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the beloved Washington Redskins.
Even so, as a Wisconsin native, Kenseth says he felt compelled to put his team owner on notice when he accepted the chance to drive the No. 20 car prior to the 2013 season.
“I told Joe when he hired me: ‘Just so you know, I’ll cheer for the ‘Skins second, but it’s always going to be about the (Green Bay) Packers for me,'” Kenseth said during his Q & A session.
Kenseth also addressed the changes he’s witnessed in media coverage since he began his career.
“I’ve seen a lot of big changes,” he said, “especially with technology – more digital, less print (coverage). Social media has been a huge change – I’m not so sure for the better all the time.
“When I started there were in-car cameras, but they had to ask (for permission to) use any of your in-car audio. Then came scanners and the FanViews where (fans) could listen to every driver and watch them all, right in the stands. (Then) social media.”
Of course fans at the Newseum also wanted to know about racing at Richmond and Kenseth’s season to date.
Heading into Richmond, Kenseth is a single point behind Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon, although neither of the series’ top point producers has won a race. Kenseth, working with crew chief Jason Ratcliff, won seven races last year, ultimately finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
This season, rule changes affecting his car, not to mention the emphasis on winning races in qualifying for the Chase, are definitely on Kenseth’s mind.
“We ran so good last year,” he said. “If I would have had my way I would have said ‘no rule changes.’ We seemed to have a really good handle on that. This year, we haven’t been running badly but we haven’t been running as good as we were last year. The rule changes are throwing everybody a curveball, for sure.
“Sheerly from a performance standpoint, we haven’t been were we’ve wanted to be. But there have been some bright spots. We sat on the pole at California, led some laps at Bristol with a really strong car. We feel good about where we’re at and feel confident we’re gaining on it.”
Although he started his career on short tracks, winning at Richmond has proved a challenge for Kenseth. His lone victory in 28 starts came in September 2002 when he led 134 laps. But after a string of 11 starts with no better than a 10th, he’s finished no worse than seventh in his last three Richmond races.
At last year’s spring Richmond race, Kenseth led 140 laps but got bottled up on the final restart and settled for seventh.
“I like everything about the race track in Richmond,” he says. “It’s a great track from a design standpoint, from a driver’s perspective and from a fan’s perspective. Everybody’s close to the action. It’s just fast – kind of like an intermediate track that’s still a short track. Lately it’s gotten really slick and tire management has been important, so you really get a little bit of everything there.”
Kenseth would like one thing: a win.
He can take heart in knowing that Joe Gibbs Racing has taken more Sprint Cup checkered flags at Richmond (nine) than at any other track other than Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kyle Busch has four wins for JGR, Tony Stewart three and Denny Hamlin two. Perhaps it will be Kenseth’s turn. After all, he is keeping his day job.
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