Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, Chip Ganassi Racing announced Monday that Matt Kenseth, at the age of 48, is coming back to drive its No. 42 Chevrolet for the rest of the year.
The 2003 Cup champion is the replacement driver for Kyle Larson, who was fired from the team two weeks ago after using a racial slur in an iRacing event.
Substitute drivers, whether for one race or longer, are nothing new for NASCAR.
Here’s a look back at some notable substitute drivers in the Cup Series. What better place to start than with Kenseth himself?
Matt Kenseth subs for Bill Elliott, 1998
Two years before his rookie season in the Cup Series, Kenseth was competing full-time in what was called the Busch Series. In September, the 26-year-old Kenseth was called in to drive Bill Elliott’s No. 94 McDonald’s car at Dover while Elliott attended his father’s funeral. Kenseth finished sixth in his Cup debut.
Kevin Harvick replaces Dale Earnhardt, 2001
Richard Childress Racing tapped Kevin Harvick to replace Dale Earnhardt after Earnhardt’s death at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick made his Cup debut the following week at Rockingham and would win at Atlanta in his third series start. He competed full-time in both Cup and the Busch Series that year, winning Cup Rookie of the Year honors and the Busch championship.
Jamie McMurray subs for Sterling Marlin, 2002
In September 2002, Chip Ganassi Racing chose Jamie McMurray to sub for Sterling Marlin after he was injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway. McMurray made his Cup debut on Oct. 6 at Talladega. A week later, he won a race at Charlotte. After finishing out the last six races of the season, he went full-time with Ganassi in Cup in 2003.
Less than a year after he retired from NASCAR competition, Jeff Gordon was back in a race car. Gordon and Alex Bowman were enlisted by Hendrick Motorsports to split time in the No. 88 Chevrolet as Dale Earnhardt Jr. recovered from a concussion. Gordon made eight starts while Bowman made 10 and nearly won the playoff race at Phoenix. Bowman’s performance helped him earn the No. 88 ride full-time after Earnhardt retired at the end of 2017.
Ernie Irvan replaces Davey Allison, 1993; Kenny Wallace/Dale Jarrett sub for Irvan, 1994-95
The mid-90s were a difficult time for Robert Yates Racing and the No. 28 team. On July 13, 1993, Davey Allison died from injuries sustained in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway. After skipping the next race at Pocono, Robby Gordon and Lake Speed shared the No. 28 over the next four races. Ernie Irvan took over the ride permanently, making his first start in the Southern 500.
Irvan made it through the first 20 Cup races in 1994 before being critically injured in a crash in practice at Michigan in August. Irvan wouldn’t return to the Cup Series until October 1995. Kenny Wallace finished out the 1994 season in the No. 28, making 10 starts. Dale Jarrett took over the ride full-time in 1995, and would be teammates with Irvan when he returned in the No. 88 (they would swap numbers in 1996).
Matt Crafton subs for Kyle Busch, 2015 Daytona 500
When Kyle Busch fractured his right leg and left foot in a crash in the 2015 Xfinity Series season opener, Joe Gibbs Racing turned to Matt Crafton to drive the No. 18 Toyota in the Daytona 500. Then a two-time Truck Series champion, it was Crafton’s first Cup Series start. He finished 18th.
Michael McDowell subs for Kyle Busch, 2011
Four years earlier, Busch missed one Cup race due to suspension. He was parked for the rest of the weekend at Texas Motor Speedway by NASCAR after he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution during a Truck Series race at Texas. Michael McDowell was chosen to race in Busch’s place. He finished 33rd.
In 2015, Erik Jones was a substitute driver for 3/4ths of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Cup teams. He made his unofficial Cup debut on April 19 as a mid-race relief driver for Denny Hamlin. He was then the final substitute driver for the injured Kyle Busch on May 9 at Kansas Speedway. He finished 40th. Jones made two more starts in Kenseth’s No. 20 after Kenseth was suspended for intentionally wrecking Joey Logano in the playoff race at Martinsville.
Mark Martin subs for Tony Stewart, 2013
When Tony Stewart broke a leg in a sprint car crash in August 2013, Stewart-Haas Racing turned to 54-year-old veteran Mark Martin to take his place. Martin drove the No. 14 car for 12 of the last 13 races to close out a Cup career the began in 1981.
Darrell Waltrip subs for Steve Park, 1998
Dale Earnhardt turned to three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip in 1998 to sub for Steve Park after he suffered three fractures in a crash at Atlanta in March. Waltrip made 13 starts in the No. 1 Chevrolet, which included his final career top five in a race at Auto Club Speedway.
There are substitute drivers, then there’s “Super Subs” like Regan Smith. Here’s how much substitute work Smith has gotten over the years.
– 2012: Drove for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in two races late in the season as Earnhardt recovered from a concussion.
– 2014: Subbed for Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen following Stewart’s sprint car incident that killed Kevin Ward Jr.
– 2015: Subbed for a suspended Kurt Busch in the first three races of the season. Then subbed for Kyle Larson at Martinsville after Larson fainted during an autograph session that weekend.
– 2017: Subbed for an injured Aric Almirola in the All-Star Race, the Coca-Cola 600 and at Dover.
– 2018: Drove in the place of Kasey Kahne for the final 11 races after dehydration issues resulted in an early end to Kahne’s career.
Like Smith, Kenny Wallace did his fair of substitute driving during his Cup career.
– 1991: Drove Kyle Petty’s No. 42 car in two races after Petty broke his leg in a crash at Talladega.
-1994: Drove Ernie Irvan’s No. 28 car in the final 10 races of the season after his injuries suffered in the Michigan crash.
– 2001: Drove Steve Park’s No. 1 car for the final 12 races after Park was injured in a freak accident in the Xfinity race at Darlington.
– 2002: Subbed for Kevin Harvick at Martinsville after Harvick was suspended for actions during that weekend’s Truck Series race.
– 2005: Drove Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 97 car for the final two races of the year after the team suspended Kurt Busch.
– 2007: Drove Robert Yates Racing’s No. 88 car in four races after Ricky Rudd injured a shoulder in a wreck at Auto Club Speedway.