Kenseth ran out of gas down stretch By Brett Borden
LOS ANGELES (Jan. 6, 2000) Matt Kenseth will walk across the Busch Series Banquet stage for the second straight year after his third place point finish in only his second full season in the series.)
With the 1999 season shaping up as a swan song for NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division driver Matt Kenseth, his focus became even tighter on the one thing he hadn't achieved in his three-year stint in the series -- a championship.
Kenseth, who will be learning the rookie ropes in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in the NASCAR 2000 season, came up short down the stretch, losing ground in the point standings if not in the victory column.
Kenseth piloted the No. 17 DeWalt Tools Chevrolet to Victory Lane four times last season, one more than he had racked up the year before. But the consistency that had brought him right up to rival Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s rear bumper in the championship hunt in 1998 betrayed him, and Kenseth had to settle for third in the final points this time around.
Kenseth seemed poised to make a move on Earnhardt Jr. after the season's 23rd race. At the Food City 250 at Bristol Motor Speedway, he held off Michael Waltrip to capture his fourth checkered flag of the season.
"This is the only way we can gain on him," Kenseth said of his pursuit of 'Little E' after the race. "He's real fast. He's consistent. At the beginning of the year, he had a lot of problems and I had a lot of problems. Whoever makes the mistakes is gonna lose this championship."
Earnhardt Jr. finished third that night at Bristol, but Kenseth had crept to within 69 points of his rival and friend.
Three races later, it became much more rival than friend. In the MBNA Gold 200 at Dover Downs International Speedway, Kenseth was dominating. He won the Bud Pole. He was leading most of the laps. And most importantly, he was cutting into the 103-point lead that Earnhardt Jr. had built up.
Then disaster struck, in the form of Earnhardt's No. 3 ACDelco Chevrolet. Earnhardt lost control coming through Turn 2 on the fast one-mile oval, spun Kenseth out hard and relegated his closest point pursuer to a 38th-place finish. Kenseth, on his way to his fifth victory, did not take the fifth when asked about the incident.
"The only way he was gonna beat us was if we wrecked - so he came up there and took us out himself," said a disappointed Kenseth. "It's not like he just ran into the back of me -- he knows better. He's the champion -- you're supposed to be able to run side by side with the champion and not worry about him taking you out. I thought it was uncalled for."
Called for or not, Kenseth never really recovered from that point on. His average finish in the last five races was 15.6, well off the 12th-place finish he averaged for the season. It not only cost him a chance at the championship, but second place as well. Jeff Green snuck by him in the season's last race, where Kenseth finished 38th again, his fifth finish of 30th or worse on the season.
But to chalk the season up as one big disappointment would not be fair. Aside from the win at Bristol, Kenseth captured checkered flags at Darlington Raceway, California Speedway and Nazareth Speedway. The latter two were part of a six-race stretch in which he posted five top-5 finishes and six top-10s.
And he also got his feet wet in NASCAR Winston Cup Series competition, running five times and even earning a top-5 finish at Dover -- the track where he made his NASCAR Winston Cup Series debut a year earlier with a stunning sixth place run. So the future looks very bright for Kenseth, who can now look back on a very strong three-year run in the NASCAR Busch Series.