Don't fault Matt Kenseth for not believing he could win the Daytona 500.
After all, it was his 10th try at a race in which he'd finished no higher than ninth and had an average finish of 23.7.
His car owner, Jack Roush, had never won the race. Kenseth was driving a backup car Sunday, so it was easy to count him out, right?
Well, especially after the week Kenseth had leading up the Great American Race. His bad mood started on Wednesday when he and his Daytona 500 primary car didn't get along during practice. On Thursday, he wrecked the wretched machine in the first Gatorade Duel and was handed the backup car. That's when Kenseth's fortunes and mood changed.
"I wrecked that car in the 150 and didn't run very good there and didn't really get our car to drive very good until Saturday, so I felt a lot better after Saturday," Kenseth told the media Monday morning after having his winning car inducted into the Daytona 500 Experience at Daytona International Speedway. "We finally got it to drive more how I wanted it to drive and feel more the way I wanted it to feel and felt like our speed was pretty good, too. So I felt a little better after that."
Fast forward to Sunday when Kenseth, who had earned the 39th starting spot, dropped to the back of the field and then made a beeline for the front. In a matter of about 40 laps he was running solidly in the top 10.
"Starting in the back, unless there's a wreck, is not that big of a disadvantage at a plate race, the way the draft works," Kenseth said. "Actually, I hate to say it helped us, but we did get to work on the car a lot more. We were in a lot of dirty air, we were in traffic a lot, we did two pit stops by lap 25. So we got to put some tires on, look at some tires. We got to be in different situations, three-wide, bottom, middle, top and knew what the car was handling like."
On lap 124 of the 200-lap event, Kenseth was riding in the top five when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers decided to tangle and the Big One ensued. Kenseth barely squeezed through with no damage.
Sigh of relief and back to racing.
The drivers, crews, owners and fans knew the rain was coming. With 55 laps to go, Kenseth, still not yet believing, got a drafting push from Kevin Harvick that put him into the lead. Moments later the caution flew for rain drops.
"As soon as we took the lead from nowhere I hear a Matt Kenseth kind of scream (on the radio) that said, 'Rain, rain, rain,' " crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said after the race. "It's very uncharacteristic of him, so then when the caution came out he said, 'What's it look like? How is the radar?' I said, 'It's here. It's gonna be here. It's gonna rain for a couple of hours. We're gonna be OK.' And he said, 'Let's just stay calm here.' And I think that was him catching himself thinking, 'OK, this could be a good thing here.' "
Sitting on pit road under the red flag, Kenseth was one of the few drivers who didn't get out of his car to talk to the TV or radio media. There he sat, with the car cover on his No. 17 Dewalt Ford, waiting, perhaps praying, and wondering if his luck had finally turned to the good. Remember this a guy, a former Cup champion, who didn't win a Cup race last season. He made the Chase, but didn't get an invite to the season-ending awards banquet after finishing 11th.
"That's how I am," Kenseth said. "I hang out in my car with a cover over it. I sit in the back pew at church. It's just me. Seriously, I just wanted to wait until it was either over or we were gonna go race again. ... I didn't want to let my emotions get too high one way or the other and I just kind of wanted to wait until it was over and go from there. I was just hoping it would keep raining."
It did and 17 minutes after the cars came to a rest on pit road, the No. 17 car was declared the winner. And iceman Kenseth let the emotions flow.
"I actually am a pretty emotional guy, you guys just don't always see it," Kenseth joked in the media room after celebrating in Victory Lane. "(Saturday) I was sitting in the motorhome telling (wife) Katie ... 'Man, I'm really getting fed up with not winning and with not being a contender.' It was actually starting to weigh on me more than I thought and we really struggled all week until (Saturday). We finally got the car to handle good and it's not like I had a bad feeling about (Sunday), but we haven't been a serious contender for the championship for a few years. ... To be able to put it all together and win the race is pretty overwhelming."
And perhaps best of all, Kenseth made a believer out of his boss on Sunday.
"We've been here for more than 20 years, trying to do this thing, and I got so conditioned for being frustrated through it that I was almost not believing that it happened," Roush said Sunday. "I'll be black and blue for the next few days just from pinching myself to make sure that I'm not dreaming."
Photo: Orlando Sentinel via AP