Kenseth: 'Rivals can be friendly'
October 30, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
The setting of this week’s NASCAR tripleheader weekend at Texas Motor Speedway conjures up classic Wild West images of cowboys in white hats and the bad guys in black. Race winners here don hats and brandish six-shooters in victory lane.
But even though the Sprint Cup Series championship remains very much up for grabs with three races remaining in the season, don’t expect to see the contenders challenging one another to a duel. They all seem to prefer a white hat. No one seems willing to be J.R. Ewing. Not yet anyway.
There are no Jedi mind tricks going on among the title contenders and the closest thing to mudslinging is Jimmie Johnson buying Play-Doh for his championship rival Matt Kenseth’s two young daughters.
"Last week was the first time (infant daughter) Lydia was at the track and my wife hadn’t been in awhile so we decided to go up the road to a little shopping center to buy Play-Doh for the bus," Johnson recalled earlier this week to illustrate his point.
"We go in the store and (Johnson's 3-year old daughter) Genevieve says Matt's oldest daughter Kaylin and her sister Grace both need Play-Doh too. So we buy the Play-Doh, go back to the motorhome lot, knock on Matt’s door and give them the Play-Doh for their kids.
"What I’m saying is, there’s two worlds here. When we put our helmets on we wish bad things for each other, no doubt," he said laughing.
"But then there’s the friendships and bonds outside the car that exist. And that’s really a hard thing to separate as you're coming into the sport. You’re buddies with the guy, your kids play and then you get on the track and it’s the opposite."
The tie atop the Cup standings between Johnson – defending winner of Sunday’s AAA 500 -- and Kenseth makes this the closest championship race in Chase history with three races to go. Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate and last week’s race winner Jeff Gordon is only 27 points back. And Kevin Harvick is a single point behind Gordon making this at the very least still a four-driver title tussle.
In the past we’ve seen the season’s final weeks characterized by both friendly verbal jabs and heightened rivalry among the contenders. Tony Stewart famously once said he'd wreck his own mother if that meant the difference in hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy.
But each season, every championship has its own tone and personalities and the players in this year’s title fight insist they won’t be drawn into a manufactured drama of name-calling or cheap shots.
They believe authentic competition creates real theater.
"I think the competition in the heat of battle and NASCAR rivalries that exists on the race track as competitors, hopefully that will speak for itself in the drama that racing creates on its own," explained the four-time champion Gordon. "You just can’t predict it. You can do your best to execute a plan, but you just have no idea how it's going to turn out.
And, he added, "I selfishly hope there’s a third party in this mix. I think that would create some fun and excitement for our team and also for the sport. Either way, I think Jimmie and Matt will put on a heckuva race.
"As for creating drama off track, you can’t do that in a fake way. It has to happen because that's who you are, or there is a real serious issue between you and the other competitor. You can’t create that. It has to happen naturally. Of course, you could be the best of friends and all it takes is one incident to happen on track. …," he said smiling and voice trailing off.
"One thing I know, Jimmie, Matt, myself and Kevin are all pretty level-headed and want it done on the race track and not off it."
The soft-spoken, sharp-witted Kenseth has his own unique take on the notion of a heated rivalry or the assumption that competition has to be cut-throat or mean-spirited to be good.
"I think rivals can be friendly," Kenseth said this week.
"I think anyone would want to be a rival with Jimmie. It’s hard for anybody to argue he isn’t the best out there right now. He won five straight and no one’s done anything close to that. I think he's won like 600 races.
"If people say we’re a rival, I think that's a compliment. Who wouldn't want to be compared to that and still be in the game?
"Hopefully we get down here (Homestead) and we're still in it (championship contention) and I'm looking forward to racing him for it."