November 13, 2017
Matt Kenseth is one of the rare drivers who has been competitive his entire career. Most drivers have a few lean years at the beginning or especially the end, but Kenseth has been consistent for the past 20 years. Even his first Cup start saw him compete for a win. And even if somehow Kenseth never returns to the Cup Series, he’ll exit with that same level of success that he entered with, nineteen years ago at Dover.
One of the major aspects of the 1998 NASCAR season was the thrilling battle between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth for the Busch Series championship. Junior entered the year as the most-anticipated new driver in decades, while the 26 year-old Kenseth had less attention.
The year before, Matt scored seven top-ten finishes racing for Robbie Reiser, but entered 1998 driving a bare, blue and red Chevy with only a small Lycos.com sponsorship on the side. However, in the second race of the season, Matt snatched victory away from Tony Stewart at Rockingham to score his first career win and vault himself into the Busch points lead. Dale Jr. earned his first win at Texas two months later and by the middle of the April, the two drivers were first and second in points.
At the Diehard 500 at Talladega in April, Kenseth made his first attempt at a Cup race. Driving for Roush Racing, his car was too slow to make the field. As Lycos increased their sponsorship of Kenseth’s Busch team, they continued to run great and swap the points lead throughout the season with Dale Jr. and Mike McLaughlin. By mid-September, Dale Jr. led the points while Kenseth ran second. Matt was one of the hottest young drivers in NASCAR and at Dover that month, he would be called on to fill-in for a Cup legend.
On Thursday night, September 17th, Bill Elliott’s father, George, passed away at the age of 74. Elliott chose to stay with family in Dawsonville that weekend which left team manager, Mike Beam, needing to walk through the Busch Series garage Friday morning to find a driver.
“I was walking through there and I was talking to (Mark Martin’s crew chief) Jimmy Fennig and he said, ‘Why don’t you get Matt to drive it,'” Beam told Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer.
After Mark Martin raved about Kenseth to Beam, he offered the young man the job. NASCAR rules, however, state that a rookie driver cannot serve as a substitute. To compete that weekend, Kenseth received special permission from Winston Cup director, Gary Nelson.
After waking up that morning without a Cup ride, Kenseth suddenly had a very busy Friday. Strapped into a special, psychedelic-painted McDonald’s Ford Taurus, he was faced with learning a new car and team. In his first day behind the wheel of Elliott’s car, Matt was 17th fastest in first practice, sixth fastest in second practice, and qualified 16th for the Cup race. In his Busch Series role, Kenseth qualified fourth for the event the following day.
When the Busch Series drivers took the green flag, Kenseth quickly asserted himself as the fastest car, taking the lead on lap 19 and holding it for nearly 100 laps. After Michael Waltrip led for a brief period, Kenseth regained the top spot on lap 142. After a late-race caution led to a 20 lap shootout, a hard-charging, Kevin Grubb was in pursuit of Kenseth’s ill-handling car. By a margin of just over a tenth of a second, Kenseth won his third race of the year.
“It was a great day for us; it was real loose at the end and I was just hanging on,” Kenseth said. “Besides the last 20 laps, this thing was on the rail the whole day. I was wide open. I couldn’t go any harder without hitting the wall.” After the race, Kenseth posted the 20th fastest time in Happy Hour for the Cup event.
When the MNBA Gold 400 began at noon, Kenseth began a slow rise through the field. By lap 80, he had climbed to 12th. On lap 120, he was 9th. But by the time a caution came out on lap 170 when Kenseth was sixth, it looked like his fantastic run was in jeopardy when he reported a strong, audible vibration in the engine.
In an interview with TNN, crew chief Joe Garone (who is now President of Furniture Row Racing) told Steve Byrnes they believed the car had broken a valve spring. An intermittent miss in the engine led the crew to go under the hood during the caution and see if they could easily diagnose the problem further. Nothing could be done, but Kenseth remained on the lead lap.
After a caution around lap 250, Kenseth gained track position and made a stunning charge to the front. With Mark Martin in the lead, Kenseth slipped past Rusty Wallace to take second place. Driving that car, Bill Elliott’s best finish in 1998 was sixth; in his first ever start, Matt Kenseth was battling for the lead. During that run, the car was a tad tight and the adjustments on the next pit stop made it too loose. After losing positions on the next run, the team had the car handling well by the end of the race.
Mark Martin turned in one of the most dominant races of his career that afternoon. After leading 379 of the 400 laps, Martin won his sixth race of the year, beating eventual champion, Jeff Gordon. In a close battle, Matt Kenseth took the checkered flag on Rusty Wallace’s back bumper to finish an astonishing sixth. It was the best finish for anyone in their first race since Wallace finished second in his debut in 1980.
“The finish wasn’t as important to me as just being competitive and showing that I could drive it if we got a good car, and it was a competitive car and it turned out real good,” Kenseth said post-race.
“It’s only one race, and I was in a really good race car,” said Kenseth. “Mike Beam and Joe Garone have a lot of experience. Mike did a great job calling the race and guiding me through as a rookie. I feel really, really good about it. You couldn’t expect to have your first race go any better than it did.” Beam was equally as excited about Kenseth.
“For as young as he is, and for his knowledge of race cars, he’s the next Jeff Gordon,” Mike Beam raved. “He knows these race cars from end to end.”
Kenseth would go on to finish second to Dale Jr. in the Busch point standings that year. In 1999, Matt ran five races in Cup for Roush Racing in preparation for a full-time rookie campaign in 2000. One year after his first start, Kenseth again ran the fall Dover race. He repeated his great performance from the year before and finished fourth.
Matt’s win at Phoenix this past weekend drew attention back to that day in Dover nineteen years ago. While Matt began his Cup career driving for Bill Elliott, he may end his career by stealing a win from Chase Elliott. Success at the hands of the Elliott family bookends his fabulous career.