Shooting bear, taming Darlington with Matt Kenseth

Wednesday, May. 22, 2013

Matt Kenseth is off to the fastest start of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career – and by fast, we mean, really fast.

Competing for a new team at Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth, 41, has already won three races and will be one of the favorites in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Kenseth, with victories at Las Vegas, Kansas and Darlington, S.C., is also third in the Cup points standings, trailing Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards.

His season has not been without controversy: A huge penalty after his Kansas victory was reduced earlier this month by John Middlebrook, NASCAR’s chief appellate officer.

Kenseth recently spoke with the Observer’s David Scott about – among other things – his fast start, how he discovered his Kansas penalty had been reduced and why he doesn’t necessarily have anything against the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Q: What do you attribute your success to so far this season?

“I don’t know. I’ve never started a season this good before. It’s just the cars are really, really fast and we’re doing whatever we need to do to win races. It’s great to be in a position so many times to have a shot at it. It’s been fun. I want to keep it up.”

Q: Obviously, things are going well with you at JGR?

“The whole organization just has really great people. That’s what it’s all about. Every team has good machinery. It’s about having great people.”

Q: Did you have much of a relationship with Joe Gibbs before?

“Not really, yes and no. But I’d never heard anything bad about him or his place. So I guess this is kind of what I was hoping for and expecting.”

Q: You grew up in Wisconsin, so you’re obviously a Green Bay Packers fine, right?

“Oh, yeah. We’d watch them on TV like everybody did. They were my home-state team. I probably started really getting into it when (Brett) Favre started. I remember (Don) Majkowski went down, Favre stepped in and we went on to win.”

Q: Have you ever worn a cheesehead?

“Yes. I wore one once for an ESPN The Magazine (photo) shoot.”

Q: You also enjoy playing in a fantasy football league?

“You know, I used to not pay much attention to the NFL, except for watching the Packers if they were on Sunday night or Monday. But now I watch twice as much because of fantasy.”

Q: How do you feel about being on the other end of it as a driver in fantasy NASCAR leagues?

“I hear from a lot of fans: ‘Hey, you’re on my fantasy team. You ruined my fantasy team’s chances last week.’ I mean, come on. But I guess I get that.”

Q: I understand you went on a bow-hunting trip to Canada last week?

“Yeah, that’s where I found out we had won the appeal. I was in a little, teeny shop in the middle of nowhere in Alberta getting my bow fixed. (Team president) J.D. (Gibbs) called me while I was in there to tell me that penalties had been reduced. So that was pretty cool.”

Q: And it must have been a relief.

“I’m just glad to have it in the rear-view mirror. I didn’t want to be in that spot and I didn’t want NASCAR to be in that spot. So I’m glad it didn’t go any further and I’m glad to have it over with.”

Q: And how did the hunting go?

“I got a bear. It was a good time, I was out in the middle of nowhere with some friends. The bear was pretty big, a 7-foot bear. It was the first time I’d ever hunted for a bear. It was about a 40-minute truck ride, then 40 more minutes in a four-wheeler. This guy dropped me off and said not to come out of this stand until I come back for you. There were a lot of wolves and bears around.”

Q: So how did you bring down the bear?

“It was pretty intense. I was watching this very large bear for 45 minutes – just me and my bows and arrows – before he came in close enough so I could shoot him.”

Q: What kind of music do you like?

“Well, I went to a Stone Sour concert the other week and that was fun. I hadn’t been to a concert in five or six years. I liked some of their stuff. I like a little bit of everything, but mostly hard rock.”

Q: When you won the Southern 500 at Darlington a few weeks ago, that leaves the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis as the only one of NASCAR’s “Big Four” races (along with the Coca-Cola 600 and Daytona 500) that you haven’t won. How important is that now to you?

“Before the season, I made a list that the two races I wanted to win were the Southern 500 and the Brickyard. It would be amazing to win that, too, now. But, honestly, every race is huge on this level. It’s so hard to win races, so you have to appreciate each one. But if I was to be choosy, those were the ones I wanted. And I got Darlington.”

Q: How’d you get started in racing?

“My dad and uncle and cousin were all into racing and they got me into it when I was 13. I was just lucky. The right place at the right time. We didn’t have a ton of money, so we couldn’t afford to race at a lot of places.”

Q: How did you get your first break in the sport?

“People noticed me and let me drive their stuff. I jumped in and drove as much as I could. I started to get noticed even more and that all took care of itself.”

Q: Your son Ross won a Late Model race at South Boston, Va., the same day you won at Darlington. That must have been really special for you and the family.

“It was. I wish I could have seen it, but sometimes it doesn’t work out.”

Q: How often do you and Ross compare notes?

“I tell him as much as he wants to know. He probably doesn’t ask me a ton of stuff really. But I don’t get to be with him as much as I’d like. But I’m there with my two cents, certainly, if he asks.”

Q: He’s also at Clemson. How’s life as the father of a college student?

“It’s good. He’s doing good. He gets home pretty much, but not as often as I get down there. I miss spending time with my son.”

Q: Do you have a disdain for the South Carolina Gamecocks?

“I don’t even know who they are. I don’t even watch that. I stay away from that.”