Kenseth looks to build on rookie momentum
By Tim Packman
CONCORD, N.C. (Dec. 28, 2000) Matt Kenseth is not a person of many words. He prefers to let his actions on the asphalt speak for him.
He used his No. 17 DeWalt Ford race car this year to do most of his talking en route to the Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Year title. While Dale Earnhardt Jr. made news off the track by bleaching his hair and wearing decorative headgear, Kenseth opted for a lower-key approach, using his racing to prove his abilities.
After Kenseth finished second and third, respectively, to Earnhardt in the NASCAR Busch Series in 1998 and '99, it was assumed the two would once again battle for rookie honors in 2000. Earnhardt was the preseason favorite and backed it up in the spring with two trips to Victory Lane and another in the prestigious non-points event, The Winston.
But, as Earnhardt looked pretty impressive by rookie standards during that time, Kenseth was quietly putting together one victory, three top-5s and five top-10s. From the July race in Daytona to the season finale in Atlanta, Kenseth added one top-5 and four top-10s to his statistics. Earnhardt garnered none in those categories. Kenseth's lone trip to Victory Lane came in the circuit's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"By winning the 600 I think we turned some heads," he said. "A lot of the hype surrounding the rookie battle focused on Junior and I. We will most likely maintain the rivalry and we'll always want to beat each other. That will never change."
Things have certainly changed for Kenseth along the path to the NWCS. At age 13 his dad, Roy Kenseth, made a deal with him. If the elder Kenseth purchased a race car, the teen-ager would have to work on it, maintain it and would be allowed to race when he turned 16. The youngster kept his end of the deal and took to the tracks of Wisconsin. In his third start, as a high school junior, he made his first career trip to Victory Lane.
In 1991, at the age of 19, he became the youngest winner in the history of the ARTGO Challenge Series when he drove to victory at LaCrosse (Wis.) Fairgrounds. The person who held the record before him was Mark Martin, a short-track winner who also made it to the NWCS.
>From 1994-'97, Kenseth continued to run the short tracks, winning titles and breaking more records. In'97, a phone call from Robbie Reiser altered his life, on and off the track.
Reiser wanted to know if Kenseth was interested in driving the No. 17 Reiser Enterprises Chevrolet in the Busch series. Kenseth took him up on the offer, moved south and placed second, to Earnhardt , in rookie honors. In '98, Kenseth racked up three victories and finished second, to Earnhardt, in the series points standings.
That was also the year Kenseth filled in for an injured Bill Elliott for a Cup race at Dover. Not only did he qualify, but he turned heads by finishing sixth in the event. After a recommendation by Martin to Jack Roush in 1999, Kenseth drove in five Cup races for Roush Racing.
He moved to Cup racing full-time in 2000 with Roush, becoming a teammate of Martin and Jeff Burton. This time, it was Kenseth taking home the honors while Earnhardt watched him earn the rookie trophy and finish better in the points.
Kenseth has a little more time to enjoy with his new bride, Katie, before the sophomore season begins. No longer a rookie, he knows next year will be different, but he is quietly confident about stepping it up a notch.
"Looking forward to 2001, the main goal for the team, and myself as a driver, is to race competitively and finish consistently," he said. "We're shooting to run in the top-five, to lead some races and to win races. Consistency is the key to finishing well in the points standings, and it's what championships are built upon."
The top freshman driver of 2000 does have some insight for the incoming 2001 rookie Cup class: The actual racing, he said, is only half the battle.
"They may not need my advice, but I know we found it valuable to keep our focus on the qualifying package," he said. "It also helps to get to know the NASCAR inspectors and officials, as well as other drivers. If you become comfortable with the Winston Cup routine, the tracks and surroundings, those things are half the battle." -nascar.com- k