Ryan: Five moments (and no wins) that define why Matt Kenseth belongs in the Hall of Fame

NASCAR Hall Fame Kenseth
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The election of Matt Kenseth as a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer should be assured because he is one of the greatest winners of his generation.

But despite a Cup championship, two Daytona 500 victories (a third was a lap away) and 39 wins in NASCAR’s premier series (ranking 21st all time), Kenseth’s career often is hailed as much by how much the Cambridge, Wisconsin, native excelled in races he didn’t win.

Kenseth, 50, notched 331 top 10s (17th all-time) in 697 career starts, a 47-percent clip that makes him one of the most consistent drivers of the modern era. He also made the playoffs in 13 of his final 14 full-time seasons while finishing in the top five of the Cup points standings seven times over an 18-year span. His 182 top fives rank 22nd all-time.

Having every crown jewel race on his resume except the Brickyard 400 made Kenseth a lock for the NBC Sports Digital ballot, but there are several instances of history being made in the races he didn’t win.

Lest we forget, NASCAR was spurred in 2004 to implement a playoff system largely because of Kenseth’s one-victory title season in ’03.

With the 2023 class being revealed Wednesday (including full NASCAR America coverage on Peacock at 6 p.m. ET), here are five Cup races – none of which is a win – that help define Kenseth’s Hall of Fame-worthy career (which also includes 29 Xfinity Series victories):


Dover Motor Speedway, Sept. 20, 1998

Kenseth’s first Cup start was a spot-on precursor for everything that came afterward.

Subbing as a last-minute replacement for Bill Elliott (who missed the race because of his father’s funeral), Kenseth qualified 16th and finished sixth in one of the most impressive debuts in NASCAR history. He tied the season-best finish for Elliott in the No. 94 Ford, which had only five other top 10s in 1998.

Kenseth was still nearly a year and a half from winning the 2000 Cup rookie of the year, and he already was tearing up the Xfinity Series (battling for the title with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1998-99).

But the Dover debut forecast that his rise to Cup stardom was a mere formality.


Kansas Speedway, Oct. 5, 2003

During a championship season was known for his metronomic excellence, this was the only point when Kenseth seemed vulnerable. After a 33rd at Talladega, Kenseth wrecked early in practice and qualified 36th in a backup No. 17 Ford that he noted wasn’t prepared properly.

During the race, Kenseth spun into the backstretch wall on Lap 69. Feverish repair work returned him 45 laps down in last, but he made up seven spots the remainder of the race and stanched some of the massive points loss (his lead shrunk to 259 points from a season-high 436 before Talladega).

In a testament to the character and cohesion he shared with longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser, Kenseth said the weekend was “80-90 percent my fault.” The Roush Racing team re-established its momentum with an eighth at Charlotte the following week, and Kansas became just a bump in the road to a title.


Texas Motor Speedway, Nov. 4, 2007

In the greatest duel of his career – and one of the best on a 1.5-mile track in NASCAR – Kenseth finished second to Jimmie Johnson after they traded the lead three times in the final seven laps.

Johnson recently recalled it as his favorite memory at Texas, where he won a NASCAR-record seven times.

Both NASCAR stars raced on the absolute edge of out of control but somehow managed to avoid making contact despite several major wiggles. While indicative of their immense skill, the battle also reinforced the immense respect and trust that Johnson and Kenseth had in each other despite locking horns for multiple championships (notably as the two top contenders in 2013).

“That was the hardest I could race without wrecking the car,” Kenseth said in a USA Today interview a few days after the Texas race. “I left him enough room but didn’t leave him any extra.”

Kenseth lost similar last-lap battles to Jeff Burton in the April 15, 2007 race at Texas and to Johnson in the March 12, 2006 race at Las Vegas. But he said the Texas loss to Johnson (who became one of his good friends as well as a rival) reminded him most of when he came up short in an epic side-by-side battle with Jeff Burton in the Sept. 24, 2006 race at Dover.

“They’re only fun battles when you’re going side by side and come out on top,” Kenseth said. “It’s not really that fun when you lose. The ones you lose are always the ones you remember.”


Martinsville Speedway, Nov. 1, 2015

The nadir of Kenseth’s career could be the elephant in the room (figuratively and somewhat literally) when the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting panel meets Wednesday in a conference hall at the Charlotte Convention Center to decide whether Kenseth rightfully will be elected as a first-ballot inductee.

There is no defending his decision to wreck leader Joey Logano while running nine laps down (because of damage sustained in an earlier restart crash that Kenseth felt deliberately had been caused by Logano’s Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski). Kenseth served a two-race suspension, but he also was unrepentant (while also taking a shot at then-NASCAR chairman Brian France).

It can be argued, though, that the unfortunate episode reflects Kenseth’s unwavering commitment to an old-school ethos that has been taught for decades on the short tracks of his native state. Though he no longer raced regularly at Slinger Speedway, Kenseth still applied its codes at the highest level of stock-car racing.

Whether that is commendable or regrettable is debatable, but there’s no question that Kenseth strongly stuck to his grassroots worldview regardless of the risks to his reputation nationally. And that shouldn’t be held against his Hall of Fame candidacy.


Indianapolis Motor Speedway, July 5, 2020

The final top five of Kenseth’s career was the highlight of his last season in Cup and one of several indicators that he still had world-class talent in his late 40s.

Kenseth already had wowed in his return from a 19-month layoff in the May 17, 2020 race at Darlington Raceway, finishing 10th in his No. 42 debut with Chip Ganassi Racing (which had fired Kyle Larson) despite having no practice because of the pandemic. Darlington marked his third consecutive top 10 in the Cup Series — an unbelievable stat considering his previous two starts had been at Phoenix (seventh) and Homestead (sixth) in the last two races of 2018 with Roush Fenway Racing.

Though the rest of his Ganassi tenure was pedestrian, the Brickyard 400 nearly gave Kenseth the perfect victory lane capper with the one NASCAR major victory that eluded him.

“I’m a little disappointed I couldn’t get it done honestly,” Kenseth said after coming up just short of winner Kevin Harvick on a final overtime restart. “Had the best tires, gave me good track position.  Couldn’t quite get (Harvick).”

After a career mostly synonymous with Ford, the final two top fives of Kenseth’s career came in a Chevy (with Ganassi at Indy) and a Toyota (his Nov. 12, 2017 win at Phoenix with Joe Gibbs Racing) – further illustrating his versatility.

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

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Harrison Burton made the first start of his NASCAR Cup Series partnership with the Wood Brothers in the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Burton and the Woods teamed last season as Burton jumped into full-time Cup racing after two full seasons (and four wins) in the Xfinity Series. Their first race was the Clash at the Coliseum, and it was a good start — Burton qualified for the feature and finished 12th on the lead lap.

Then things headed downhill. Crashes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway left Burton with finishes of 39th and 33rd, respectively. After the first five races of the year, he had four finishes of 25th or worse.

Now, Season Two, and there are higher expectations. Much higher.

MORE: Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

“The start of last year was really, really rough,” Burton told NBC Sports. “It kind of put us in a hole. We got into the wreck in the 500 and crashed at Fontana. Things kind of stack up on you, and all of a sudden you’re buried in points and it’s hard to make it back up.

“But, at the end of the year, three of the last four weekends were big for us (three consecutive top-20 finishes). We need to build off that and try to get out of the West Coast swing and have a clean group of those races. That’s really important. We need to get our average finish up in the first four to five races and not put ourselves in a hole we can’t get out of, and then go from there.”

The Wood Brothers team typically brings strong cars to the Daytona 500, the season’s first point race. Trevor Bayne scored the team’s latest win in stock car racing’s biggest event in 2011.

“We ran well in the 500 last year until I was upside down,” Burton said. “We had a fast car and qualified well and finished third in our duel. Then in the second Daytona race we put ourselves in good position late, so we were in contention in both Daytona races. The speed was there, and the cars drove well.”

The team’s primary goal is to make the playoffs, Burton said. “And we want to be a contender,” he said. “Cup races are so hard. First, you have to contend. Having a good average finish is really important. If you average around 17th or 18th all year, you can kind of point your way into the playoffs, and doing that is on our minds for sure.”

MORE: Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

Burton looks for a strong start in Sunday’s Clash, which will present teams with a mix of the old and the new. Drivers got the experience of racing inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, and notes from that race will be useful, but the racing surface will be all new again.

“Every repave has a different tendency,” Burton said. “We’ll see how close it is to last time and how different. Obviously, there is experience on that track, but still it’s a completely new surface, so it’s going to be a mixture of old and new. There’s some knowledge we can build off of, but we kind of have to go into the weekend with that knowledge as tentative because we don’t know if the track is going to be different.”

Burton heads for Los Angeles with a win already under his belt this year. He and teammate Zane Smith, last year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, won last Friday’s International Motor Sports Association’s Michelin Pilot Challenge Series race on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

Burton drove the finishing laps in the four-hour race. He was third with about 50 minutes to go but moved in front with 22 minutes left when leader Elliott Skeer parked. Burton outran second-place Spencer Pumpelly by .688 of a second for the win.

“I thought we could run well,” Burton said. “After the test we did, we were really fast, so I was pretty excited. But apparently there is a lot of sandbagging that goes on there, so I wasn’t sure where we were. We had to have some things go right for us, and they did.”

 

 

 

 

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

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Last week, NASCAR tested the muffler that will be used for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum.

“Heresy,” some fans cried. They argued that it is against the laws of man and nature to muffle racecars. That noise is an integral part of the fan experience. That you’re not supposed to be able to have conversations during races.

Relax.

The cars will be plenty loud.

Loud is fast

Engines produce power by combusting fuel and air in their cylinders. Each combustion produces high-pressure gases that push the piston up. The same gases make a loud popping sound when they escape the cylinder and finally the exhaust.

At 8,000 rpm, an eight-cylinder engine performs about 520 combustions every second. The faster an engine runs, the more combustions per second and the higher the frequency of the tailpipe noise.

That’s why NASCAR engines sound like grizzly bears and F1 engines, which run at higher speeds, sound more like angry mosquitoes.

Maximum horsepower requires getting the spent gases out of the cylinder as quickly as possible so the next combustion reaction can start. And that’s the problem with mufflers, from a racing perspective.

Mufflers on street cars bounce sound waves from the engine around a metal can. The waves interfere with each other, which decreases the overall volume coming from the exhaust.

Mufflers can also mitigate noise by directing the exhaust through a sound-absorbing material. Borla, the sole-source supplier for this weekend’s muffler, makes commercial racing mufflers that feature a robust sound-absorbing material superior to the commonly used fiberglass.

Both methods slow the exhaust gases — the first more than the second. The ideal racing muffler diminishes sound with minimal horsepower reduction.

Decibels

Sound-level measurements come in decibels (dB), a unit named after Alexander Graham, not Christopher — and apparently by someone who wasn’t the best speller.

But decibels don’t tell the whole story. Sound intensity decreases with distance, so you need to specify how far away the sound source was.

The easiest way to explain the decibel scale is to relate it to real-world noises, as I’ve done below.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels.

  • Zero dB is the threshold of human hearing.
  • A whisper you can just barely make out is about 20 dB.
  • Most everyday noises are in the 60 dB to 100 dB range but are sometimes louder.
  • Exposure to 130 dBs can be painful.
  • A 150-dB sound can cause permanent hearing damage in a very short time.

Ringing in your ears the day after a rock concert was a badge of honor in high school. Older me wishes I had been a little smarter.

Hair cells — not to be confused with ear hair — facilitate hearing. Sound bends these hair-shaped cells, and the cells convert sound into electrical signals that the brain interprets. Loud sounds can bend these cells so much that they break.

Unlike animals such as sharks, zebrafish — and even the lowly chicken — humans cannot grow new hair cells. Once your hearing is damaged, you can’t get it back.

How loud are racecars?

A noise mitigation study for the proposed Nashville Fairgrounds track measured a single Next Gen car at COTA generating 112 dB on a straightaway at 100 feet.

A 2008 study measured the sound level inside a Gen-6 car to be an average of 114 dB. The study also compared sound in the stands, the infield and the pits.

Let’s add those numbers to our graph.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels, including sound measurements from the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is about the same loudness as a person screaming at top volume 1 inch from your ear.
  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is just a bit quieter than sitting inside the Gen-6 car.
  • Bristol reached peak sound levels loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

The graph data suggests that inside the Next Gen car should be around 10 times louder than inside the Gen-6. Some drivers made new earmolds to cope with the additional noise in the cockpit.

Because of the way sound works, the numbers don’t add like you’d expect them to. A Next Gen car might be 112 dB, but two Next Gen cars are more like 115 dB. A full field would be only 5-7 dB louder.

The mufflers won’t muffle much

NASCAR expects a six to 10-dB reduction in sound with mufflers. A 10-dB reduction would make the Next Gen car about as loud as the Gen-6 car was.

Another way of looking at it: Good earplugs reduce sound levels by 25 to 30 dB. Wearing earplugs just barely gets you into the range of being able to hold a conversation if you stand very close to each other and you both shout.

You won’t notice the change in sound inside the track.

You also won’t notice a change in speed this weekend, despite a drop of 30-40 horsepower. The Next Gen car takes around 14 seconds to traverse the L.A. Coliseum’s quarter-mile track. That means cars won’t be going much faster than typical expressway speeds.

If you’re headed out to the track this weekend — despite the mufflers — bring earplugs or over-the-ear headsets. This is especially important for children, as their hearing is more easily damaged.

Joe Gibbs Racing adds young racers to Xfinity program

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Connor Mosack, 23, and Joe Graf Jr., 24, each will drive select races in the No. 19 Xfinity Series car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Mosack, who has a 20-race Xfinity schedule with Sam Hunt Racing this year, will run three races for JGR: Chicago street course (July 1), Pocono (July 22) and Road America (July 29) while also competing in six ARCA Menards Series races for JGR, including Feb. 18 at Daytona.

Graf, who has a 28-race Xfinity schedule with RSS Racing this year, will run five races in the No. 19 Xfinity car for JGR: Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 25), Las Vegas (March 4), Richmond (April 1), New Hampshire (July 15) and Kansas (Sept. 9).

“I made my Xfinity Series debut with JGR last June at Portland and from the moment I made my first lap in their racecar, I realized why they’ve been so successful,” Mosack said in a statement. “Their equipment was second to none and the resources they had in terms of people and their knowledge was incredible.

“Jason Ratcliff was my crew chief at Portland and he’s got a ton of experience. I was able to learn from him before we even went to the track. Just in our time in the simulator, we made some great changes. So, to be back with him for three Xfinity races is going to be really valuable.

“And when it comes to JGR’s ARCA program, it’s the class of the field. After having to race against JGR cars, I’m really looking forward to racing with a JGR car. No matter what track they were on, they were always up front competing for wins. To have that chance in 2023 is pretty special, and I aim to make the most of it.”

Said Graf in a statement about his opportunity with JGR: “Running five races with JGR is a fantastic opportunity for myself and for my marketing partners. I think I can learn a lot from JGR and showcase my skills I’ve been growing in the series in the past three years. 2023 is shaping up to be a great year and I’m pumped to get started with the No. 19 group.”

Ryan Truex has previously been announced as the driver of the No. 19 Xfinity Series car in six races this season for JGR. The remaining drivers for the car will be announced at a later date.

Mosack didn’t start racing until he was 18 years old. He went on to win five Legends car championships before moving to Late Model stock cars in 2019. He graduated from High Point University in 2021 with a degree in business entrepreneurship. Mosack’s first Xfinity Series race with Sam Hunt Racing this season will be March 11 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

NASCAR weekend schedule for Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR’s winter break ends this weekend as Cup Series drivers return to the track for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

The second Clash at the LA Memorial Coliseum has been expanded to 27 (from 23) drivers for the 150-lap main event. Qualifying, heat races and two “last chance” races will set the field.

MORE: Drivers to watch in the Clash

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash, the perfect start to a season that ended with him holding the Cup championship trophy.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Cup)

Weekend weather

Saturday: Mostly sunny. High of 71.

Sunday: Partly cloudy. High of 66.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup Series practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup Series qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Feb. 5

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four Heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two Last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)