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