ATLANTA – Matt Kenseth arrived at Philips Arena, a collection of stadium workers and early-arriving fans watching as he posed for pictures with the FOX Sports South girls, Brittany and Canicka, and shot promos for FOX’s Feb. 24 coverage of the Daytona 500.
He was there as the Great American Race’s defending champion, the Harley J. Earl Trophy in tow for his appearance, but for Kenseth this year isn’t about the past — it’s about a new beginning.
After 13 years at Roush Fenway Racing in which he won 24 races and the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Kenseth signed with Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I’m going in there with my eyes and ears open and trying to pay attention and take in as much as I can, learn as much as I can,” he said. “At the same time hopefully I can contribute as well.”
The 40-year-old has a new manufacturer in Toyota, new teammates in Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. But it’s a new number that’s giving him the most fits as he goes from the No. 17 to the No. 20 and it’s caused him the most trouble when signing autographs.
“I’m making myself write 20 all the time when I sign stuff,” Kenseth said, “but every once in a while I’ll sign something real quick and I’ll put  on and it’s like ‘AAAAHHH.’”
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Kenseth walked onto the Hawks practice court in the bowels of the arena. Aside from the small group that trailed him and a few basketballs littering the floor, it was deserted.
At halftime of the night’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, he was to attempt a half-court shot to win $1,000 for a Hawks season ticket holder. But that was hours away and the NASCAR star was going to get some practice in.
“Great,” Kenseth deadpanned as he held a ball and headed toward mid-court.
He took a few steps back from the massive Hawks logo that took up the center-court area and heaved the ball. The first attempt missed badly to the right. The next one was on line but fell short.
“Closer,” Kenseth said.
The third shot missed, as did the fourth and the fifth. Members of Kenseth’s party had been taking pictures and the Hawks PR staff filming him but as the shots continued missing, they put their cameras down. But this writer kept filming.
His eighth shot hit the right side of the backboard, then the ninth went wildly off to the right. Finally, on Kenseth’s 10th shot, the ball sailed through the net.
“OHHHH!!!!” the on-lookers called out.
Following a dinner overlooking the court, where the likes of the Hawks’ Al Horford and Jeff Teague and Nets’ Joe Johnson and Deron Williams were warming up, Kenseth met with reporters. He discussed the changes from Cup’s Car of Tomorrow to the new Gen 6 car, the type of racing he expects to see at next month’s 500 and the NFC Championship Game, which will be held in the nearby Georgia Dome on Sunday.
A Wisconsin native and an unabashed Green Bay Packers fan, Kenseth had some advice for the Atlanta Falcons, who will play the San Francisco 49ers, which ended Green Bay’s season in the divisional round.
“Yeah, tackle that No. 7 [quarterback Colin Kaepernick],” he said.
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Walking through the arena’s bustling concourse minutes before tip-off, Kenseth went unnoticed.
Aside from his shirt, a black thermal which included the Joe Gibbs Racing logo on the arm and sponsor Dollar General’s patch affixed to the front, and the Daytona 500 winner’s ring on his right hand — Kenseth disclosed he had wore it twice, during the media parade immediately after the race, and on this day, saying “I’m not much of a jewelry guy” – he was just a face in the crowd.
He made his way to the Hawks LIVE pregame set to chat with host Jerome Jurenovich before taking his seat for the start of the game. Kenseth had already made one shot from half-court, but the try that mattered was drawing closer.
“I’m not feeling too good about it at all,” he said. “I’ll probably embarrass myself, but that’s OK.”
After joining SportSouth’s play-by-play team of Bob Rathbun and Dominique Wilkins during the second quarter, Kenseth waited courtside as the Hawks cheerleaders and the acrodunk troop, SkySquad, readied for their performances.
He watched a blindfolded fan try – and fail – to crawl her way to free gasoline in a contest then took his place at midcourt with season ticket holder Joey Wojtczak, whom Kenseth would be shooting for.
One attempt. One thousand dollars.
“I told him, ‘You’re screwed,’” Kenseth joked. “No, I told him I wasn’t going to make it.”
The shot missed badly to the left, and Kenseth took it in stride.
“Well, my shot wasn’t very good,” he said.
He posed for pictures before disappearing down the tunnel, a test at Charlotte Motor Speedway awaiting, along with a run at history at Daytona International Speedway.
Only three drivers have ever won NASCAR’s most prestigious race in consecutive years, Richard Petty (1973-74), Cale Yarborough (’83-84) and Sterling Marlin (’94-95) and only Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon have taken the checkered flag in the event three times.
Come Feb. 24, Kenseth will make his play, and as he told the 15,029 fans after missing that 47-foot shot: “I hope I drive better than I shoot.”