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Sprint Cup Series

Kenseth in college spotlight on Daytona tour

Matt Kenseth USF

RELATED: See photos of the Road to Daytona


TAMPA, Fla. -- Two-time Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth drew a captive audience while visiting the University of South Florida campus in Tampa on Thursday as part of the Road to Daytona tour.


He was accompanied by Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood -- a USF graduate -- and the pair were popular visitors to the highly touted Sports & Entertainment Management Program. During a question-and-answer time, they won over graduate students with their humor and insight with Kenseth joking he needs to be more active on social media.


The two were equally well-received later by the Mechanical Engineering department, where Kenseth, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Dollar General Toyota, seemed as interested in the students' work as they were in meeting a NASCAR champion. Kenseth even sat in the race car built by the successful USF Racing Team.


And Chitwood surprised the group of engineering students by giving them tickets to the NASCAR XFINITY Series race next Saturday in Daytona Beach.


"I started going over to Daytona as a little boy when I was 8 or 9 years old," engineering student Michael Kennedy said. "I got into NASCAR big time when my dad and all his friends were big Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans and I didn't want to root for the same driver so that's when Jeff Gordon was coming up and I started rooting for him. I attached to him. He's retired and now I didn't have a driver to root for, but Matt's really selling his game."


It's Daytona 500 time and in just a few days it will be all business for Kenseth as he heads to the $400 million "reimagined" iconic Daytona International Speedway for Saturday's Sprint Unlimited and ultimately, the Feb. 21 Daytona 500.


The sport has been abuzz this week with new rules, a ground-breaking Charter system and high-profile substitute drivers. But on Thursday, Kenseth seemed to enjoy a much lower profile sharing insight and winning over fans everywhere he went.


Explained that the USF Racing Team competitions include a 300-page rule book, Kenseth smiled and asked, "Do you read that whole thing?"


Kenseth's time signing autographs for the students and sharing his love of the sport was sincere. And well-received.


"Talking to the kids isn't the most comfortable I'd ever be, but it was good," Kenseth joked of his time taking questions from the graduate students. "Then walking in here (USF Race Team shop) is neat and seeing all the stuff they built."


Kenseth seemed to have as many questions for the students as they had for him. But he was kind and funny and put everyone at ease. 


"We are really big on bringing in industry people to share with our students, but as many speakers as we've had in during the last three-and-a-half years, this was the first time we've had a very recognizable, world-class professional athlete to share his thoughts about sports marketing," said Dr. Mike Mondello, USF's Associate Director of the Sports and Entertainment Management Program. "I think it worked out well to hear different perspectives, for the students and for Matt and Joie."


In addition to big breaking news from NASCAR this week -- including the announcement Thursday afternoon of Daytona 500 qualifying procedures, green-white-checkered flag formats and a new points system -- Kenseth spoke about one of his more pressing issues: having a different spotter at Daytona.


Lorin Ranier will guide Kenseth in this weekend's Sprint Unlimited and most likely next week in the Daytona 500 as Kenseth's regular and longtime spotter Chris Osborne continues to heal from serious injuries he suffered in a December traffic accident near Charlotte. Doctors still have not cleared him to spot for the 500.


"Actually we got fortunate having Lorin be available," Kenseth said. "Lorin actually spotted my first Cup race ever, believe it or not, and he's spotted for me a lot of times over the years in the XFINITY Series. I'm real comfortable with Lorin and think he'll do a good job.


"Of course it's not the same as having your regular spotter, though. We just want 'Crazy' (Osborne) to get better and when he comes back, to be 100 percent healthy and be ready for the grind. I know he's trying real hard."


Kenseth said working with a different spotter at Daytona would more typically be worrisome, but that's where having had previous experience with Rainier will make the difference.


"Especially on superspeedways, the driver-spotter thing is probably more important than people realize," Kenseth said. "We talked about that last week. If you make a wrong move because you didn't see something or didn't hear something and the car is torn up it doesn't matter how hard you worked in the shop to prepare it or how fast your pit stops were.


"Certainly at plate races when the game is a matter of inches, not feet, it's extremely, extremely important to be on the same page as your spotter. I wish 'Crazy' could do it, but I feel very fortunate Lorin was available. He does a nice job particularly at the speedways where he's had success. I know him well enough and I'm comfortable with him."


As for NASCAR's new Charter system, formally unveiled this week, Kenseth was equally as effusive and encouraged.


"I only know a little bit about it from the owners perspective," Kenseth said. "The owners getting together and having a voice I think is a good thing, a good start. I didn't know where it was going to end up, but it seems like the owners are satisfied they got it done. What's good for the owners is good for the drivers."


Kenseth said he was flying back to Charlotte later Thursday for one last night at home before his trip to Daytona for the highly anticipated Speedweeks.


"It usually hits me when I come down and throw my bag in the motorhome, and think, 'I'm here,' " Kenseth said smiling. "But when you walk into the garage area that first morning you still get that feeling you did the first time you walked in there."

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