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.

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.