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Sorensen: Kenseth reveals some of side rarely seen

Bank of America 500, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC

Matt Kenseth is a public figure who doesn’t like to speak publicly. But he’s a star race car driver, and stars talk. Thursday he’ll read “Go Dog Go” to kindergartners at a Charlotte-area school.

Several years ago a cousin’s wife talked him into speaking to his nephew’s third-grade class.

“So I walk in there, I didn’t even know what I was going to say,” says Kenseth, 41. “Like, ‘Hey what’s up?’ And the first kid raises his hand and says, ‘Do you got a cat?’ I thought, ‘OK, this will be easy, I can talk about my cat.’”

The kid adds: “Yeah, I can tell. You got cat hair all over your pants.”

Fine, kid. But Kenseth’s racing suit is clean and pristine. He leads the Sprint Cup standings with six races to go, the first of them the Bank of America 500 on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Kenseth is at the Speedway Club on Wednesday to show off his new limited edition Matt Kenseth Citizen watch. It’s a beautiful timepiece that bears his number, 20, and it doesn’t require a battery. The motto is it’s unstoppable.

That doesn’t add pressure, Kenseth says.

He says: “I can’t run 25th. Oh, he’s unstoppable.”

Citizen also created a watch for New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl winner.

Manning is 0-5 this season, somebody says.

“My fantasy team is 5-0,” says Kenseth.

He’s proud of that team. Five seconds after I ask who’s on it, he pulls out his phone and there it is. His wife, his son, his business manager and several former team members are in the league.

He should be proud. In related news, the rest of the league should be ashamed. Kenseth’s team includes Atlanta’s Matt Ryan at quarterback and Dallas’ Dez Bryant and Atlanta’s Julio Jones at wide receiver. Alas, Jones probably is out for the season.

Citizen told Kenseth he could chose a charity to which it would make a $25,000 donation. He chose Wisconsin’s Alzheimer Disease Research Center.

Kenseth grew up in Cambridge, Wis., a 20-minute drive from Madison, where the university is. His mother, Nicola (Nicki), died of Alzheimer’s last year. She was 63.

“It’s a terrible disease,” Kenseth says. “It’s no fun to watch somebody go through that so that was something that’s close to the Kenseth family and close to our hearts. And anything we can do to help prevent other people from having the disease, and finding a cure, is something that is definitely on our minds.”

As terrible as the disease is, the program is upbeat. The $25,000 could be seed money. So many of us have seen parents suffer through it. We don’t always know where to go to get help.

Before the program, before the presentation of the check and the unveiling of the watch, Kenseth finds a seat next to reporter. He picks up the man’s notebook and begins to write.

After the program, Kenseth and I find two chairs and talk.

What did you write in the notebook?

“Coolest driver ever and he thinks he’s the funniest driver ever,” Kenseth says.

Describe your personality.

“Boring,” he says.

I laugh and then he does.

“That’s what everybody says, so I just agree with it,” says Kenseth.

Kenseth, who wears jeans and a black Citizen shirt, is lean. He isn’t loud. He doesn’t need to be noticed.

“Yeah, I don’t really like to be,” he says. “I kind of like to just blend in. I’m OK with that.”

Is your driving style similar to your personality?

“You know, not intentionally,” Kenseth says. “I kind of got that rap. It’s not a bad rap. Like, OK, he’s just there at the end, which is a great thing. You want to be there at the end.

“A lot of that is just because we haven’t qualified well. If you had to come from 25th every week, they aren’t going to see you until the end. But we’re qualifying better. When we can we try to get out to the lead and try to get in position to stay in front as much as possible.”

Describe your style of driving?

“Boring,” he says.

Ha. Should have known that was coming.

“Man, I don’t know,” Kenseth says. “It’s a good question, but I don’t really know how I would describe it.”

Aside from public speaking, what’s the best part of the job?

“Winning is the best part,” he says. “But I got to be honest. There’s not a bad part. But the best part is certainly when you get in there and fire the engine up on Saturday night and get ready to go and race all those guys and it’s hard to win. And when you do there’s no other feeling like it I’ve ever found doing anything else ever.”

He has won seven Sprint Cup races this season.

When you win, do you feel you’re the best?

“I’ve never felt like I’m even close to the best driver,” Kenseth says right away. “So just to be out there with that group really is an honor. To be able to do this every week, to get to drive against these guys and get paid? When you win at this level that’s a really incredible feeling.”

Why be modest? You won the 2003 championship (the last title before the Chase format began). If you win this season will you feel like the best?

“No,” says Kenseth. “I would feel probably the same as I feel today. I would feel like I’m fortunate. I’ve been blessed to be with a great team and a great organization to get me the equipment to have a shot.

“Obviously the driver is a significant part of what happens on the race track because you’re in control of the car, kind of like the quarterback of the football team. But it’s such a team sport. When you sit and watch on TV I know you see the pit stop, but you see the driver in the car going around the race track. It’s easy not to appreciate all the people in the trenches doing the work and building the cars and figuring out how to get that last little bit of speed out of your car.”

It’s easy for Kenseth to appreciate them.

“When I’m off here doing this (Wednesday), there are 400 people back in Huntersville trying to build me the fastest race car possible,” he says. “It’s really more about that group than it’s about me.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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