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Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Updated: October 15, 7:51 PM ET
Chasing relevance in NASCAR

By David Newton
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Matt Kenseth was running late on Tuesday. He had to get from an appearance at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte to another 20 minutes away with rush-hour traffic sure to double the driving time.

His public relations person practically was pushing him out the door as five reporters attempted to ask questions while the 2003 Sprint Cup champion walked to his car. There was a look of panic on her face when Kenseth stopped to hold an informal roundtable discussion.

Kenseth/Gordon
Talladega winner Matt Kenseth, left, and fellow Chase contender Jeff Gordon, who has six top-3s in the past seven races, remain relevant.

"What do you guys want to talk about?" he asked.

Meanwhile, 20 minutes away, in Concord, Kurt Busch was working on the 1970 Dodge Charger he planned to run that night in a celebrity race at zMAX Dragway. He should have been in a good mood, having just learned he'd been spared further penalty for potentially endangering safety workers with Sunday's post-wreck actions at Talladega Superspeedway.

He wasn't, at least not that you could tell. His car was having engine troubles and his public relations person was having no luck getting the 2004 Cup champion to give three reporters a few minutes of his time -- which they never got.

Kenseth gets it.

Busch doesn't.

Kenseth is relevant.

Busch wants to be again.

Being relevant drives most athletes. It's why Kyle Busch was so bummed about missing the Chase, why 41-year-old Jeff Gordon was so thrilled to make it at an age when some drivers start to slow down.

It's why drivers currently outside the top three in points -- maybe top four -- aren't being talked about as championship contenders heading into Saturday's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m., ABC).

It's probably why Dale Earnhardt Jr. was so un-Earnhardt-like on Sunday with his criticism of plate racing at Talladega. He understood the 25-car crash that collected him on the last lap probably eliminated him from the title picture.

That made him not as relevant as NASCAR's most popular driver can be.

Kenseth even gets that. He told a fan who asked about Earnhardt's comments during a Q&A at the Hall that the words were out of frustration. He then added in his distinctive dry humor that Earnhardt will show up at the 2013 Daytona 500 even though he said he didn't want to.

Getting it in some ways is as important as being relevant. An athlete who gets it as Kenseth does can become relevant even when not in championship contention.

Good things typically happen to those who get it, too. Kenseth is getting one of the top rides in the series next year at Joe Gibbs Racing. He is moving to an organization he believes will provide him the best years of his career.

That will keep him relevant.

Good things don't always happen to those who don't get it. Busch is moving from one lower-tier team in Phoenix Racing to another in Furniture Row Racing, beginning this weekend. His odds of making the Chase and competing for a title next year aren't very good.

The move isn't likely to make him relevant.

Busch had a chance to at least partially get it when his move was announced two weeks ago. But instead of saying he appreciated the chance Phoenix Racing gave him after being released at Penske Racing, he made issue of how the move wasn't lateral as many described it. He made it an issue to the point it belittled Phoenix Racing.

His transition from Roush Fenway Racing to Penske Racing after the 2005 season went worse. RFR officials were so anxious to get Busch out the door that they sat him for the final two races after an incident with a police officer in Phoenix.

Kenseth's transition has gone seamlessly. He has gone out of his way to keep his team relevant in the Chase despite a bad start. He said Sunday's victory at Talladega was more for his crew than it was for him.

"I could tell everyone was getting real close to being at each other's throats," Kenseth said. "Not with me, but with themselves, internally in my team.

"I just wanted to leave that thing as good as I can. It was really important to me, and it still is for the next six weeks."

That's because Kenseth gets it.

He is relevant.

He hopes to remain relevant in the Chase, even though his chances aren't good at 62 points out of first and last among the 12 drivers.

But Kenseth won't give up. He believes he can win on Saturday, just as he did a year ago. He understands if he can erase the 22 points between him and fifth-place Clint Bowyer his odds will increase.

Kenseth knows being negative about all that has gone wrong in the Chase won't do any good.

"I can't believe I haven't had a meltdown or lost my mind," Kenseth said. "Chicago, we threw away a whole practice session because we couldn't figure how to bolt together the parts and pieces that were supposed to be bolted together three days before that."

Then a shock fell off during the race, another human error from a longtime employee who forgot to tighten a bolt in inspection. Then at Dover a part broke that was about to break on the other two RFR cars.

"Yeah, it's hard to not lose your mind," Kenseth said. "But if you take a few minutes and a few deep breaths and think about it. … Screaming at everybody and yelling and getting someone fired and ridiculing them, is that going to make it better?"

Kenseth gets it.

Busch was having a bad night at a meaningless drag race and he couldn't spare a few minutes. He may never get it. He may never become relevant again.

And trust me, Busch wants to become relevant. Being relevant is what this sport, any sport, is all about.

Ask anybody.

"I've always said I don't want to be in this sport driving around," Gordon said. "If I'm going to be in it, want to be competitive."

Take away a 35th in the Chase opener at Chicagoland because of a stuck throttle and Gordon would be more relevant than his competitors want. He has finished third, second and second since, giving him six top-3 finishes in the past seven races.

Although 42 points out, he's kept himself relevant enough that points leader Brad Keselowski and second-place Jimmie Johnson aren't ignoring him.

"By making the Chase like we did, by battling back like that, it was good for me as well personally," Gordon said. "It made people believe I still have that drive."

It made Gordon relevant.

Kenseth gets that. A year younger than Gordon, he understands the significance of remaining competitive. That's why he is leaving an organization he thought he'd retire at.

"You can look at people who won a lot of races and even championships, and all of a sudden you don't start running good," Kenseth said. "You just get forgotten about or can't keep a job, or if you do get a job it's a crappy one. I'm scared of that happening someday."

But no time soon.

"I really feel I could have my best years of racing in front of me," Kenseth said.

Kenseth glanced at his public relations person, noting she was more than slightly peeved at him for throwing the schedule into disarray.

But he kept talking. He talked for more than 15 minutes.

Kenseth gets it.

There was a time a few years ago when he didn't. He was tentative around reporters and reluctant to show his true personality. But he understands now that if he doesn't market himself, then others might not either.

He has let his personality help keep him relevant. Asked if he feels more comfortable being funny now, Kenseth deadpanned, "I thought I was the only one that thought I was funny."

Yeah, Kenseth gets it all right.

He may not get that second title he wants this year, but he's a lot closer to it than Busch is, than Busch may ever be again. He's in a position to contend for titles for many years to come.

He's in a position to remain relevant.

And that's what this is all about.