Matt Kenseth through the years: From young champ to Hall of Famer

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Former Cup champion Matt Kenseth will be among those inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday (8 p.m. ET on Peacock).

Kenseth joins Hershel McGriff and Kirk Shelmerdine in the Hall of Fame’s 13th class. The Hall will have 61 members after Friday’s ceremony.

Kenseth, 50, will be among the younger inductees to the Hall. His Cup career began in 1998 and ended in 2020. He scored 39 victories in 697 Cup starts and a championship.

Here is a look at Kenseth’s career through the years …

Beginnings

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Matt Kenseth with Bill Elliott before the fall 2001 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Craig Jones/ALLSPORT)

Kenseth’s first Cup start came as a fill-in for Hall of Famer Bill Elliott. Kenseth’s debut took place Sept. 20, 1998, at what was then called Dover Downs International Speedway. He drove Elliott’s No. 94 McDonald’s car to a sixth-place finish. Elliott missed the race to attend his father’s funeral.

“It’s a sad deal for Bill and his family, but I’m real flattered they picked me to drive this car because there are a lot of good drivers here,” Kenseth said after qualifying Elliott’s car 16th.

 

Friendship 

Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr
Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona in July 2003. (Photo By Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

The first time Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced against each other in NASCAR was April 19, 1997, at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Kenseth finished 11th. Earnhardt was 39th.

They both ran full-time in what was then the Busch Series in 1998. Earnhardt won the series title that year. Kenseth was second. Earnhardt repeated as champion in 1999. Kenseth placed third that year.

They both moved to Cup in 2000. Earnhardt drove for his father’s team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Kenseth drove for Roush Racing. Kenseth won Rookie of the Year honors.

 

Champion

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Matt Kenseth celebrates the Winston Cup series title at North Carolina Speedway on Nov. 9, 2003. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Kenseth’s smooth driving style and consistency, a trait many compared to Hall of Famer David Pearson, led to the 2003 Cup title. Although Kenseth won only once, he had 25 top-10 finishes in 36 races and was so far ahead of the field that he clinched the title with one race to go.

This was the last year the champion was determined by a season-long points total. The Chase would debut in 2004 and morph into the playoff system used today.

 

Teammates 

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Teammates Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle during NASCAR Nextel Cup Series testing Jan. 31, 2006, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Kenseth drove five Cup races for car owner Jack Roush in 1999 before moving to Cup full-time for the team owner in 2000. Kenseth drove for Roush from 2000-12.

His teammates at Roush included Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch, among others. Kenseth scored 24 wins with the organization.

 

Daytona 500 champion 

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Matt Kenseth celebrates his second Daytona 500 win in 2012. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Kenseth’s career includes two Daytona 500 victories. He won the 2009 rain-shortened race and won the 2012 race, leading the final 38 laps in that event.

Kenseth won the 2009 Daytona 500 after starting 39th. It marked the first time Ford had won the event since 2000.

Kenseth’s 2012 victory came in a race that was postponed a day and run under the lights at Daytona International Speedway. The race was delayed after a parts failure caused Juan Pablo Montoya to lose control of his car and hit a jet dryer under caution, sparking a fire on the track. The race didn’t end until after midnight, finishing early Tuesday.

 

New teammates 

2013 NASCAR Sprint Media Tour
Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, drivers for Joe Gibbs Racing, speak to the media during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour on Jan. 24, 2013. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Kenseth moved to Joe Gibbs Racing before the 2013 season. His debut season proved memorable. He won a career-high seven races, including the night race at Bristol.

Kenseth finished second in the season standings. Jimmie Johnson beat Kenseth by 19 points for the championship. Kenseth would go on to win 15 Cup races at JGR.

 

One last Cup victory

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Matt Kenseth celebrates his win at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 12, 2017 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Kenseth earned his 39th and final Cup win in the 2017 playoff race at Phoenix Raceway, taking the lead with 10 laps to go.

“I don’t know what to say but thank the Lord,” Kenseth told NBC’s Rutledge Wood after climbing out of his car on the frontstretch. “Just got one race left. Everyone dreams about going out a winner. So, we won today, no one is going to take that away from us.

Kenseth returned to Cup in 2018, running 15 races in the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway Racing to help the team diagnose the struggles with that car. Kenseth sat out the 2019 season but was called back to duty in 2020, replacing Kyle Larson after he was fired at Chip Ganassi Racing. Kenseth ran the final 32 races of that season.

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Best drivers without a Cup championship

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For most of its 75-year history, and particularly since the early 1970s, the focal point of the NASCAR Cup Series has been the season championship.

Winning the title was noteworthy prior to the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. joining NASCAR as its primary sponsor, but the stacks of money provided by the Winston cigarette brand increased the importance of the championship exponentially. To be known as a “Winston Cup champion” became a much-coveted honor.

Over the years, many talented drivers have chased the championship, won dozens of races, come close to winning the title trophy and built Hall of Fame careers, all while failing to reach that ultimate goal.

Here are 10 of the best “non-champions.”

NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin — Hamlin had the look of a championship driver from his first full-time season (2006), when he finished third in the standings. Along the way, he has won the Daytona 500 three times, won 48 Cup races and built a Hall of Fame resume. In the race for the championship, however, he has finished second, third three times, fourth twice and fifth twice.

2. Mark Martin — Martin was Denny Hamlin before Denny Hamlin. He chased the championship across 23 full-time seasons in the sport, falling short on several agonizing occasions. He was second five times and was in the top five in eight other years. Forty Cup victories and a reputation as a racer’s racer gave him clear entry into the Hall of Fame.

3. Junior Johnson — Johnson was the opposite of a “points” racer. He drove cars like there was no tomorrow. The result was typically a win, a wreck or an exploding engine. Although he won 50 races as a driver and later six championships as a team owner, there would be no driving title for Johnson.

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4. Davey Allison — Truly his father’s son (Bobby won the championship in 1983), Davey checked every box that might be listed under “champion” in the early years of his career. He barely lost the title in 1992 but seemed on track to compete for numerous championships down the road. He died in a helicopter crash in 1993.

5. Fred Lorenzen — “Fearless” Freddy, smart, fast and handsome, was a runaway star in Cup racing in the 1960s. He won 26 times between 1961 and 1967 and never ran a full schedule (although he finished third in points in 1963).

6. Fireball Roberts — The sport’s first superstar never raced a full Cup season. He won 33 races, including at least one every year between 1956 and 1964, when he died from injuries suffered in a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He finished in the points top 10 six times.

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7. Ricky Rudd — Rudd drove for numerous teams, including his own, and won 23 times. A fierce competitor (ask Kevin Harvick about this), Rudd won at least one time every season for 16 consecutive years. He scored his best points finish — second — in 1991.

8. Carl Edwards — Edwards was solidly consistent throughout a career that produced 28 victories and earned him a shot at the title in 2011, when he tied Tony Stewart but lost the championship on a tiebreaker. He likely would have been in more championship races in future years but decided to retire early.

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Junior, who won 26 times in Cup, repeated much of his father’s successes on the sport’s biggest tracks but fell short of joining him in scoring championships.

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10. Tim Richmond — Richmond had a short but brilliant career, winning 13 times across seven seasons. In 1986, he won seven races and finished third in points. Fast, fearless and controversial, he died of AIDS in 1989, two years after his final race.

Honorable mentions: Jeff Burton, Jim Paschal, Curtis Turner, Geoffrey Bodine, Buddy Baker, Greg Biffle, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant.

Sometimes you just gotta laugh … racing has its moments of hilarity

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NASCAR racing is intense, loud, long, occasionally controversial – and often funny.

Yes, funny.

The fun stuff goes back to stock car racing’s early years, when rules weren’t quite as tight, there was no prying eye of television and drivers were more likely to be adventurous. And goofy.

This helps to explain why, on a very hot race day at Darlington, someone might slip an open can of smelly sardines behind a driver’s seat minutes before the start of a race, thus making the comment “My car was a stinker today” all too real. Drivers learned not to reveal a fear of snakes because, at some point, someone would toss a plastic one into the race car. During a pit stop.

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Fans can be funny, too, although not always in a welcome way. A fan who perhaps had been overserved actually ran across the track during green-flag racing at high-speed Pocono Raceway. A fan approached Darrell Waltrip for an autograph – during a pit stop, and another one ran over to Matt Kenseth’s car during a red-flag period at Pocono hoping for an autograph. A fan hijacked a pace car at Talladega Superspeedway and led officials on a chase.

Here’s a list of some funnies that have occurred along the NASCAR road …

Who’s that I’m racing for? — Being so close to all that neon on the Las Vegas Strip, Las Vegas Motor Speedway often tries to jazz up its race weekends with guests who might bring a bit of pizzazz to the proceedings. Such was the case in 2004 when the track welcomed Robin Leach, host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” to lend his distinctive voice to pre-race driver introductions. Before Leach began his introductions, speedway public relations director Jeff Motley ran down the list of drivers to help Leach with the proper pronunciations. This helped, but it didn’t solve every potential stumbling block. Entered that day was veteran driver Morgan Shepherd, who called his team Racing with Jesus Motorsports. When Leach reached that part of the lineup, he introduced Shepherd as driving the “Racing with Hay-Soos Dodge,” using the Spanish pronunciation of Jesus.

Fat folks need not apply — Victory Lane celebrations can range from intense to very intense. This became a problem one year at Martinsville Speedway, which, for decades, has presented a tall grandfather clock to each race winner. On this particular occasion, some rambunctious celebrating in Victory Lane resulted in the clock being tipped over and damaged. For future races, track officials stationed someone in Victory Lane to “guard” the clock, but you have to look closely to see the person. “Take a good look at the clock, and you might see him,” track president Clay Campbell said. “But we get the skinniest guy on the payroll to stand behind the clock to make sure it doesn’t fall over.”

Thanks for the help, officer — During the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company’s three-decade run as the Cup Series major sponsor, RJR officials often took part in pre- and post-race ceremonies at various tracks. Prior to a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, T. Wayne Robertson, a key Winston official, was driving a high-level RJR executive to the track for pre-race activities. Traffic was difficult, and they were running late. Determined to make the important pre-race appearance, Robertson pulled out of traffic onto the breakdown lane and zoomed along, making excellent time. A few minutes later, the flashing lights of a police vehicle appeared in Robertson’s rear-view mirror. He kept driving. When the cars arrived near the track’s infield gate, the officer pulled his car in front of Robertson’s, forcing him to stop. The officer walked to the window of Robertson’s car and asked why he hadn’t pulled over. “Oh, I thought you were my escort,” Robertson said.

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The Man in Pink? — Dale Earnhardt built his reputation for aggressive driving by scoring victories and championships in the Richard Childress Racing black No. 3 Chevrolets. The car was the Darth Vader of its time. But Earnhardt’s first race car, the one he banged around Carolina short tracks, was painted pink.

Not Junior’s best side — Bud Moore and Junior Johnson raced for decades across the NASCAR landscape and eventually into the Hall of Fame. They were friends and rivals. Their paths often crossed while on the road. Moore remembered one particular occasion. “We were coming back from a Richmond race one year and ran up on Junior Johnson and his guys,” Moore said. “They saw us coming and kept holding us up. Wouldn’t let us by. Finally, they pulled over to the left side to let us by. We got up beside them, and I was ready to shake my fist at them. Then I saw Junior. Stuck his big rump out the window. Mooned us. I couldn’t believe it.”

Let’s settle this outside — Darrell Waltrip eventually became one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history, and he added to his popularity with many years as a commentator on race broadcasts. But Waltrip could be an agitator and a loudmouth early in his career, and he often heard resounding boos from the grandstands. After falling out of the 1982 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and being hammered by boos, Waltrip had had enough. “Meet me at the Big K parking lot,” Waltrip said to fans over the race broadcast, suggesting a throwdown at the local Kmart might be a solution. There was no report of such an encounter. A similar incident occurred at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2019. Michael Annett and Mike Harmon made contact during a practice session. During a television interview, Annett called Harmon an idiot. Harmon later tweeted: “Come bring your punk ass down to Applebee’s on Crawford Road and call me an idiot to my face.”

It’s OK. I’ll take it from here. — One of NASCAR’s most spectacular wrecks occurred at the finish of an April 2009 race at Talladega Superspeedway. Brad Keselowski shoved leader Carl Edwards approaching the finish line, sending Edwards’ car flying into the air and into the catchfence in front of the grandstands. As Keselowski crossed the line to win the race — his first win, Edwards’ car slammed to the ground and came to a stop. Despite the calamity of the scene, Edwards remained calm, climbed from his battered car and ran on foot across the finish line to “finish” the race, mimicking a scene from the racing comedy “Talladega Nights.” Despite Edwards’ best effort, he didn’t get credit for completing the lap. He finished a lap down in 24th.

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Rehabilitation works — After he retired from racing, veteran driver Dick Brooks was badly injured in a motorcycle accident. More than a week into his recovery in a hospital, Brooks was visited by a racing friend, David Pearson. Pearson asked about Brooks’ progress. “The doctors tell me if I keep up the rehab work, I’ll be back to 90 percent,” Brooks said. “Hell, Brooks,” Pearson replied. “That’s better than you were before.”

What else can I say? — In one of the most remarkable streaks in NASCAR history, Richard Petty won 10 Cup races in a row in 1967. After the 10th win, Petty made his way to the press box at North Wilkesboro Speedway for the usual post-race interview with media members, some of whom had watched all 10 victories. “I don’t have much to say that I haven’t already said,” Petty said. “Maybe I should ask the questions.”

Orange alert! — The 2004 Xfinity Series race at Chicagoland Speedway was sponsored by Tropicana and was named the Tropicana Twister 300. During qualifying for the race, a huge inflatable orange advertising Tropicana got a lot more publicity than promoters might have had in mind. High winds sent the inflatable rolling onto the race track, where it became a big orange menace before being successfully corralled.

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

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The best quotes from drivers and others involved in NASCAR competition often come in the heat of the moment — after a crash or a close finish or a controversial decision by officials.

NASCAR’s history is filled with memorable quotes from drivers who won races to drivers who watched wins slip away to officials caught in a moment of history.

Here’s a look at 10 that stand out:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. “I didn’t mean to turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage, though.” — Dale Earnhardt, describing how he didn’t mean to wreck Terry Labonte after he wrecked Labonte on the last lap at Bristol Motor Speedway to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race.

2. “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass. There’s no way to get around that.” — Kevin Harvick, Feb. 21, 2010, offering his opinion on why Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team won so many races after Johnson outran him to win at Auto Club Speedway.

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3. “It’s a stump-puller.” — Sterling Marlin, emphasizing the strength of his engine after he won the Daytona 500 Feb. 19, 1995.

4. “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.” — Joey Logano, talking about Kevin Harvick after they were involved in a late-race crash at Pocono Raceway June 6, 2010. Harvick’s wife, DeLana, often wore a firesuit similar to those worn by team members during races.

5. “Do you have a brother?” — Ward Burton, responding to a reporter who asked if it was tougher to finish second because the race winner was his brother, Jeff, March 7, 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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6. “I couldn’t hear him. He’s got that little yap-yap mouth. I couldn’t tell what he was saying.” — Ricky Rudd, commenting on what Kevin Harvick said to him after they wrecked at Richmond Raceway, Sept. 6, 2003.

7. “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.” — team owner Robert Yates, explaining why his team would not participate in the next week’s race after its driver, Davey Allison, was killed in a helicopter crash, July 1993.

8. “He’d have to toast everyone with milk.” — Dale Earnhardt, commenting on the celebratory drink choice Jeff Gordon might make if he ever won the Cup championship. After he won the 1995 Cup title, Gordon followed through, toasting his championship with a glass of milk at the awards banquet.

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9. “You know they say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice.” — Tony Stewart, winning the pre-race trash-talk contest with Carl Edwards prior to the 2011 race for the championship. Stewart had won the title in 2002 and 2005 and notched another over Edwards in 2011.

10. “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” — NASCAR President Mike Helton, confirming Earnhardt’s death at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 18, 2001.

Honorable mentions: David Pearson, after being told that Richard Petty had said Pearson was the best driver he ever raced against: “I agree with him.” … CBS broadcaster Ken Squier, calling the famous finish of the 1979 Daytona 500: “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.” … NASCAR founder Bill France, providing a unique ending to a pre-race prayer after temporarily forgetting to use Amen: “Sincerely, Bill France.”

Is Cup champion Joey Logano also Driver of the Year?

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Who is the NASCAR Cup Series Driver of the Year?

In most seasons – some would say all seasons, the answer is easy. The Driver of the Year is the Cup champion. Joey Logano qualified for the playoffs, survived every playoff round and finished in front of the other three championship contenders in the final race to become the champion.

It’s certainly easy to make the argument that the Cup champion also should be named the season’s top driver, but various groups who hand out such awards occasionally go in other directions. For example, the National Motorsports Press Association, a group of writers, broadcasters and photographers who cover auto racing, has awarded its Richard Petty Driver of the Year award to drivers who did not win the championship in four of the past 15 seasons.

Chase Elliott won the championship in 2020, but Kevin Harvick was named driver of the year. In 2019, the NMPA honored Martin Truex Jr. with its award, although Kyle Busch won the title. Joey Logano won the championship in 2018, but Harvick was driver of the year. And, in 2008, Carl Edwards won the NMPA award in one of Jimmie Johnson’s championship years.

How does this happen? In most cases, it’s about race victories. Some media members tend to give drivers more credit for race wins than the NASCAR system might, particularly if the driver is relatively new or has had a breakthrough sort of season.

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In 2020, for example, Elliott won the title, but Harvick got the award nod primarily because he won nine races to Elliott’s five. In 2018, Harvick was honored by the NMPA for his eight race wins, while champion Logano visited Victory Lane only three times.

The Cup championship – and its attendant monetary, hardware and publicity packages – obviously is more important than a media award, but the differences illustrate the way different entities view excellence.

What about 2022?

Logano, who put together a masterful final race to win his second Cup championship, would seem to be the logical choice for this year’s Driver of the Year award.

But an argument could be made for two other drivers – Ross Chastain and Chase Elliott.

Chastain was the breakout driver of the year, winning for the first time and then adding another victory, wrestling at the front of packs with leading drivers, riding the wall in a spectacular display at Martinsville to make the Championship 4 and finishing second in the standings. And creating more than his share of controversy along the way.

Elliott led the seasonal win list with five and was one of only two drivers (Logano being the other) with more than three victories. He won the regular season championship, won with a last-lap pass at Talladega and led the tour in laps led (857) and average finish (12.5).

Logano is king. But is he king of all he surveys?