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

NASCAR Hall Fame Kenseth

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 11: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #6 Wyndham Rewards Ford, stands in the garage area during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 11, 2018 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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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.