Darlington – Matt Kenseth UnderstandsBy Ron Fleshman
Matt Kenseth is a man of history. Rarely have we seen anyone more excited than Matt Kenseth for winning Darlington’s Southern 500. In my youth, this was one of the sacred crowns of the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit until the powers that be decided that the old track was not worthy of two races a few years ago. The track is tough and it takes a special talent to win at the egg-shaped track, but few had as much fun winning a race here than Matt Kenseth.
When I was growing up in West Virginia, with no coverage except from the Roanoke, Virginia , radio stations or Southern MotorRacing weekly newspaper, Daytona, Atlanta, Charlotte, Rockingham, Bristol, and Darlington was all there was to have a big win in NASCAR’s top series. Well, maybe not Bristol, but you get the idea. Those old tracks with so much history behind them began to be forgotten in the sport, which really is criminal. Did Boston raze Fenway Park? Did Chicago tear down Wrigley Field? No, but in NASCAR’s world, it was time to move on and expand the series to places like Kansas, Chicago, and even Phoenix and California. Rockingham and others were closed while Atlanta and Darlington lost one of their two races. It was almost like the powers that be decided that history didn’t matter. The reasons given were attendance and the lack of the lack of things that big corporations wanted—suites, major highways, and who knows what else. But for those that grew up in the sport, those of us who grew up with Rockingham, Darlington, and even North Wilkesboro, the Southern 500 was special. Matt Kenseth is one of us.
Kenseth said it. He had never been more excited to win a race. The Southern 500 was the one he always wanted to win. It was special. Never mind that it’s put on the schedule on a weekend that is less favorable than most races—not Labor Day, but a weekend where we are always concerned with family and not racing. It was set up to fail. Who is going to go to a race that falls on one of the most sacred weekends of the year where we honor our mothers? Well, the folks at Darlington were at least given a chance to try. Rockingham was just closed for the reasons above. North Wilkesboro was sold and Atlanta was just given a crumb to exist. Labor Day went to Atlanta and the second Darlington date went away. It’s a business decision we were told. Nothing more. As attendance went down and the fan base eroded, the question was why?
Tonight, on the podium, a great stock car driver who is credited with the formation of The Chase, stood up and said this was the highlight of his career. Remember, this is a career that includes two Daytona 500 championships and many other wins. Maybe someone should listen. Of course, history means nothing when money is at stake, but the folks in Boston and Chicago could care less about that. They still operate Wrigley and Fenway because they are special. Why NASCAR doesn’t get that is beyond me. That’s the difference between a sport that understands tradition and fan loyalty. Matt Kenseth understands.