MONTE DUTTON: LAST OF THE COOL
Some would define going out on top as winning a championship in a final year. I guess Alan Kulwicki came closest, and he didn’t want to go out. A plane crash cost him his life. Ned Jarrett retired late in 1966 after winning the 1965 championship of the series that would one day become Monster Cup.
In other words, no one’s ever really done it, by choice or tragedy. Matt Kenseth has one race to go, but he hadn’t won all year when he took the checkered flag at Phoenix Raceway. Of course, Kenseth isn’t really retiring by choice. He’s too proud to beg for a lesser ride and just ride around for a paycheck.
Within reason, he is going out on top. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going out on top in terms of popularity, but Kenseth won his penultimate race, and the exclamation point is that he proved Joe Gibbs -- or whichever pencil pusher who deemed him expendable -- wrong.
Kenseth has always made his points with his works and deeds, not his publicist.
I can’t really write that I’ll miss Kenseth because I haven’t talked to him in five years. I know others who possess the gift of deadpan humor. None of them is as good at what he (or she) does as Kenseth.
Kenseth is 45 years old. It doesn’t matter. He still looks like the kid who knows a secret.
The first time I talked to Kenseth was on Feb. 17, 1996, after the Greater Tampa Bay Auctions 200 at Volusia County Speedway in Barberville, Fla. He took the checkered flag … and finished last because his Chevrolet was disqualified in the NASCAR Slim Jim All Pro Series race. The box score shows that Rick Crawford led the final two laps, but that’s not true. Kenseth inherited the lead when Freddie Query was black-flagged for rough driving, and Crawford inherited the victory when NASCAR officials DQ’d Kenseth.
I don’t remember what Kenseth said. Query didn’t say anything, but he answered my question by tearing apart a mesh Slim Jims cap with his bare hands. Actually, Query did say something. He said, “That answer your question?”
Good times. Great oldies. Precious memories, how they linger.
Many young drivers are as genuine as 14-carat cubic zirconia. They’re interested in “branding.” Handlers sell them as ketchup, and they’re just about as interesting. Ask them a “yes or no” question and they’ll take a full minute saying “maybe.” They’ll say “Bozo McGaffigan has to do what’s best for Bozo McGaffigan,” and I’ll want to apologize.
“I am so sorry. Please forgive me. I thought you were Bozo McGaffigan.”
Kenseth’s a straight shooter who’s slow to fire. Fortunately, he has excellent judgment.
Next year I’ll wish Kenseth was still around, but it won’t be that painful because I’m not still around. I’ll miss him on TV, looking profoundly embarrassed because he has to answer a Rutledge Wood question that is usually, “How cool is that?”
On a coolness scale of one to 10, Kenseth is between Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Those two were spare with their words, too.