- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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NASCAR superstar Matt Kenseth was talking with the members of his No. 17 team at Roush Racing headquarters in North Carolina last year when the usual subject of pro football came up. Always a lively topic among the crew, the conversation took a unique turn on this one day before the 2006 NFL season.
One of Kenseth's crew members began talking about fantasy football, a passionate pursuit among many associated with the team. Kenseth, a Cambridge, Wis., native and diehard Packer fan, then agreed with others that it was time for the team to start their own fantasy football league. Kenseth's public relations representative, Adrian Parker, was a commissioner of three fantasy football leagues the year before and a natural selection to run the first-ever fantasy football league for the No. 17 team.
"Adrian is a buddy of mine and we had a good time with it," Kenseth said. "I started watching the NFL from new perspectives. I didn't just watch the Packers anymore. I became more interested in the rest of the league."
Kenseth had never played fantasy football before and many of his crew members had past experience. Needless to say, it was instantly challenging for him to be competitive in his first season. According to Parker, approximately seven of the 14 owners in the No. 17 league had played fantasy football before.
"The league size really made it more challenging to acquire good players, especially on free agency," Kenseth said. The league may be reduced to 12 teams for 2007, but Kenseth was able to make the playoffs in his rookie campaign as a fantasy owner. "I didn't know a whole bunch about it when last season started, but it was cool and really fun," Kenseth said. "It gave us something else to talk about."
Parker focused solely on running the No. 17 league and dropped his other fantasy commissioner responsibilities. The league also included a team shared by Matt's wife, Katie, and her sister, Julie, aptly named "Twisted Sister." Fuel runner Adam Jordan won the league championship.
Kenseth said he learned a lot of lessons in his first season that he will apply to his 2007 strategies. "Just the draft itself was a new thing for me last year," he said. "I'm going to approach that differently next season. I'll do a better job because now I have a better sense of things that I didn't have the first time around."
Kenseth admitted that trading Willie Parker for Clinton Portis hurt his chances to be a major contender, and he expected more from Drew Bledsoe. "When Portis went on injured reserve that pretty much ended my season," he said. But he did own Chad Johnson, and the Bengals receiver helped him make the playoffs.
One of the biggest problems for Kenseth would seem to be that many of his Nextel Cup races take place on NFL Sundays, denying him the opportunity to catch many of his fantasy players in action. But Kenseth said the scheduling conflicts aren't a major issue. "We get to catch most of the Sunday night and Monday games," he said. "I do my lineup well before the day starts." Kenseth records all the Green Bay games and said he catches up with news about his players on the Internet later in the week.
Although Kenseth says he instantly enjoyed fantasy football, his allegiance to the Packers "remains first and foremost." He admitted that it was an unusual experience for him to see Packer players on an opposing roster during the fantasy season. "If another guy had some Packers on his team that made things a little different for me," he said." But in the end, it's still all about the Packers."
Among Kenseth's most memorable moments as a football fan was to watch a Packers game from the sidelines. Shortly after winning the 2003 Winston Cup Championship, he was invited to watch a Packers-Eagles game up close and also got the opportunity to meet Brett Favre. "It was the first time I had ever seen a game from that close," Kenseth said." It was great to see a legend from that perspective."
Kenseth is already a legend himself in Cambridge, where his fan club headquarters includes an actual racing museum dedicated to him. "I never thought I would have something like that in my life, so it's really neat," he said. Visitors can view Kenseth's actual race cars and gear and can purchase official merchandise in the fan club's retail store.
Kenseth narrowly missed winning his second championship in 2006, as he finished second in the Nextel Cup standings. He is widely known among fantasy racing enthusiasts for being one of the most consistent and dependable drivers available. Kenseth, easily pegged as an elite driver in fantasy auto racing leagues, hasn't heard too much about fantasy racing yet. None the less, he realizes that fantasy is now a growing passion in the fan base of his own sport.
"I've never gotten into any of that stuff (fantasy racing) but it can certainly bring more attention to our sport, much in the same way it brings more attention to football," he said. "People will pay a lot more attention to our sport by playing those games. Anything that brings us more interest and fans is great."
Kenseth is certainly one of the top picks in any fantasy racing league, but he is facing the same challenges that will make the 2007 Nextel Cup season more unpredictable for any driver. An expanded Chase field and the Car of Tomorrow races are just two of the new wrinkles that could alter his outlook.
"The jury is still out on the Car of Tomorrow," Kenseth said. "We won't really know for sure whether it's going to be good or bad until we are all on the same track with it." As for the expanded Chase field, Kenseth said it's another example of NASCAR making the Nextel Cup Series more interesting. "They are always coming up with new ways to make the Chase more entertaining to watch."
Since 2000, when he won the Raybestos Rookie of the Year award, Kenseth has been one of the main reasons to watch the Nextel Cup series, which seems to surge in popularity every season. He won five races in 2002, and finished in the top 10 in the 2004 standings. He finished seventh in 2005 and then won four races in '06, with 15 finishes in the top five. Kenseth has 21 career Busch Series victories to his credit and three IROC wins. Yet despite all his accomplishments, one of his most cherished memories is from pro football.
"When the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1997, that was a great moment that I am going to remember forever," Kenseth said.