Growing up in the early 2000s was a good time to be a NASCAR fan. Considered to be the heyday of the sport, it was a time of good racing, the early years of the postseason format, and there were a lot of great personalities to root for and cheer on.
For me, it was Jeff Gordon – every Sunday I’d throw on my flaming 24 hat and hang on every single pass, and every single adjustment the team made to the car. For many others it was Tony Stewart. For most, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. You had people who worshipped Jimmie Johnson, and of course you had Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick – more of the “love to hate” crowd’s kind of drivers.
Among all of these charismatic and enthralling drivers was one that I think doesn’t get enough credit for how great he truly was. Of course I’m talking about the pride of Cambridge, Wisconsin, Matt Kenseth. I think without question, people don’t remember Matt the way they ought to. “The Brat” as he was nicknamed back in his early career, is a sure fire first ballot Hall of Famer. With a quiet demeanor, he tends to fade into the background.
I want to shed some light on why Matt should be remembered as one of the greatest in a generation of greats.
Matt Kenseth’s racing career began when he was 16, after he asked his father if he would help him buy a race car. Success came quickly – in only his third start in a feature, Kenseth was a winner. By 19, he was beating guys like Dick Trickle and Ted Musgrave all across Wisconsin’s late model scene.
With a win in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, Matt became the youngest winner in the ARTGO Challenge Series, breaking a record set by another sentimental favorite: Mark Martin. After dominating the early 90s in Wisconsin and winning the 1994 Slinger Nationals, a call from an old rival would set Matt Kenseth on a course towards NASCAR stardom.
Robbie Reiser was a third generation wheelman who was a short track ace in his own right. Robbie won three super late model track championships at Slinger, and had to beat Kenseth for a couple of those. His father, John, started a Busch Series team in 1993 just for his son to one day run in NASCAR’s top division. But Robbie never found the success in stock cars the way he did in Wisconsin. He never ran a full season, and by 1997, a decision had to be made.
So Robbie called Matt, which had to be a bitter pill to swallow, and asked him to drive his car. Reiser would serve as crew chief. After a partial season in 1997, Kenseth and Reiser went full time in 1998. At Rockingham in February of that year, Matt found himself behind Tony Stewart on the final lap. With a classic short track “bump and run,” he captured his first win in NASCAR and went on to finish second in the final points standings to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Something else incredibly significant took place in 1998.
NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Bill Elliott, was unable to race at Dover due to the passing of his father, George. In stepped Kenseth, and just like every other time he sat behind the wheel of a race car, he took care of it, raced smart, and snagged a very impressive sixth place finish. His performance was a great glimpse into the future.
After another top-three finish in Busch Series points in 1999, Kenseth and Reiser moved over to Roush Racing in the Cup Series starting in 2000. Matt was part of an intense rookie battle with Dale Earnhardt Jr. that season, and on top of being the first rookie to ever win the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte, he beat Junior for Rookie of the Year. 2001 was winless, but 2002 was a major breakout year for the young driver of the DeWalt Ford, as he scored five wins.
2003 was something else entirely.
Kenseth scored one victory. Ludicrous in today’s era of the playoff format and the emphasis being placed on winning. But in 2003, NASCAR still crowned a season long champion – in fact, that season was the very last to do so. Recording one of the most consistent seasons of all time, Matt Kenseth was crowned the 2003 Winston Cup Series Champion after amassing one win, but 25 top-10 finishes in 36 starts. It was also Roush Racing’s first championship, and started a decade of brilliance for the team.
After 2003, Kenseth remained in contention every Sunday, with a penchant for qualifying poorly but somehow managing to be there at the end. I remember Benny Parsons would say on NBC’s broadcast that if Kenseth qualified well, the field was always in for it. Growing up watching him, to me where he started never seemed to matter. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but man, did it take some amazing drives for Kenseth to win 39 times in his career. Those included two Daytona 500 wins, which were both scored by his ability to be in the right place at the right time.
Another thing that people need to remember about Matt Kenseth is that he was never one to back down. Over the years it seemed drivers took Matt’s quiet demeanor for weakness. I’d say if you ask Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, or even my hero, Jeff Gordon, they’d say that Kenseth was not to be trifled with. Especially after Kenseth ruined Logano’s 2015 campaign at Martinsville.
After the abysmal half season he endured with Chip Ganassi racing and the part time campaign driving the 6, I’m worried that younger fans will only remember him for that. Matt Kenseth was just as important to my fandom growing up as any of the more famous or charismatic drivers of the time. I always respected him, even after Bristol in 2005 (if you know, you know, right Gordon fans?). After seeing him on Fox at California covering the race a couple of weeks ago, it was like the 2000s all over again.
All I could picture in my head was the black and yellow 17 car, lurking inside the top-15, waiting to make his move. Hopefully, after reading this, that’s what you’ll see too, even if you didn’t start watching until 2010.
Thank you Matt Kenseth, for all the great memories. I can’t wait to see you in the Hall.
Photo Credit to the official Twitter account of Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing @RFKracing