Ford's past championship Cup contenders

This Week in Ford Racing October 21, 2003 NASCAR's modern era is recognized as beginning in 1972 with the introduction of R.J. Reynolds as series sponsor. In the 30 years that have followed, Ford Racing has won more than 250 Winston Cup races ...

This Week in Ford Racing
October 21, 2003

NASCAR's modern era is recognized as beginning in 1972 with the introduction of R.J. Reynolds as series sponsor. In the 30 years that have followed, Ford Racing has won more than 250 Winston Cup races and captured six manufacturer's titles. However, only three Ford drivers have claimed the NASCAR Winston Cup championship.

Bill Elliott (1988), Alan Kulwicki (1992) and Dale Jarrett (1999) all achieved the sport's highest honor and as the 2003 season winds down, Matt Kenseth is poised to join that elite group. He begins the final four-race stretch run with a 240-point lead in the standings over second-place Kevin Harvick.

Following is a look back at each of Ford's NASCAR Winston Cup championship-winning seasons and interviews with those people who played key roles in making it happen.


Elliott took the points lead for good with only nine races remaining after a second-place finish at Bristol and extended it after posting wins at Darlington and Dover in the month of September. He saw his 139-point lead nearly evaporate over the final six races as Rusty Wallace went on a tear by winning four of the final six races, including three straight (Charlotte, North Wilkesboro and Rockingham). Elliott ended up winning the championship by 24 points over Wallace in front of his hometown fans at Atlanta Motor Speedway with an 11th-place finish. Elliott, who won 11 races in 1985 but did not win the title, posted a season-best six poles and tied with Wallace for most wins with six.


WHAT FEELINGS TO DO YOU GET WHEN YOU REFLECT ON YOUR CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON? "It was special because as involved as my dad was in Ford and everything that he had done, it was a special time for us. Not only winning the championship, but coming back and doing it for Ford after all they had done for us. A lot of things transpired through the eighties when guys like Pearson were backing out and the Wood Brothers were kind of where they were at in their lifetime and just the way everything unfolded it was a pretty unique deal."

THERE HAVE BEEN ONLY THREE FORD NASCAR WINSTON CUP CHAMPIONS IN THE MODERN ERA. THAT'S A SELECT GROUP. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON MATT KENSETH? "Those are pretty low odds. I think a lot of Matt. I think Matt is a good kid. I really feel like he's got the intensity to really go on and do some great things. It just all depends on how this changes him from the standpoint of elevating him to the next level because the farther you go in this sport and the more you accomplish, the more that changes your life. The more you have to do, the more burned out you get as time goes on. With as intense as he is and trying to run the Busch deal and all this other stuff, it's hard to do."

DO YOU SEE ANYBODY CATCHING HIM? "I wouldn't say it's over, but I'd swear they'd have to have some awful bad luck. I mean, he just seems to be able to capitalize on a lot of stuff. The key of it is that only a couple of guys have a shot and everybody else doesn't have a chance. The key is that those guys have to win races and he totally has to go the other way."


Alan Kulwicki seemed out of title contention after wrecking three cars over the course of one weekend at Dover. He trailed points leader Bill Elliott by 278 points with only six races remaining, but Elliott finished 30th in two of the next three races and opened the door for Kulwicki and others to get back into the hunt. Going into the final race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, five different drivers had a shot at the championship. Davey Allison led Kulwicki by 30 points with Elliott 40 points back. Harry Gant was 97 points behind with Kyle Petty (98 back) and Mark Martin (113 behind) still having outside shots, but it came down to Kulwicki and Elliott. Allison got caught up in an accident with Ernie Irvan and was forced out early. Elliott and Kulwicki swapped the lead several times during the second half of the race, but Kulwicki clinched the title by leading more laps in the event. Even though Elliott won the race, Kulwicki won the championship by 10 points.


WHAT THOUGHTS COME TO YOUR MIND WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT 1992? "I wish I was in Matt's position at this particular stage of the season in '92, that's for sure. They're in a good situation. We were in a completely different situation because it went down to five people who could literally win the championship in the last race. That was pretty unique and, obviously, it hasn't happened again since then, so it's still a great feeling to have been a part of that even though it's been 10 years. Matt's in a great position."

YOU WORK WITH THEM EVERY DAY. WHAT HAVE YOU SEEN THAT MAKES THEM SO CONSISTENT? "They're really not doing anything special. They're doing the same thing everybody else is doing in the shop. They're building new cars. I think they got a heads up on all of our Roush teams on their cars and bodies right from the get-go. They didn't really seem to get affected by the model change from last year to this year with the common templates, but that seems to be where they got their advantage. They got off to a really good start and haven't let up. They've always had good runs and they're just top-tenning us to death. When you look at all the scenarios they're just doing everything right. This kind of reminds me of Bobby Labonte when he won the championship. He had a great year, did nothing wrong and hardly had any failures. That's how he won the thing and that's what our point system awards. It's pretty neat."

WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE TO BE A CHAMPION CREW CHIEF? "As competitors, whether you're a driver, crew chief or crew member, you always want to win championships. Whenever you can have that beside your name saying you've won a Winston Cup championship, that means a lot and it means a lot forever. It doesn't matter if it was 10 years ago, it always means a lot because people always talk about it and remember how you did it. It's an awesome feeling and being a part of the Ford group that has had only three previous champions in the last 30 years is special. That's a pretty elite group and it's nice to be a part of, but, hopefully, that number will increase to four at the end of this year."


Dale Jarrett joined his father, Ned, as only the second father-son duo to win NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships when he ran away with the title in 1999. The Jarretts joined the Pettys, Lee and Richard, as father-son champions after Dale took the points lead after the Richmond race in May and never let it go. He won four races, including his second Brickyard 400, and won the championship by 201 points over second-place Bobby Labonte.


YOU'RE PART OF A SELECT FORD GROUP OF NWC CHAMPIONS. "Yeah, it's pretty cool and if you look back over the years and think about all of the really good Ford teams and Ford drivers, it's amazing it's that few that have made the most of the opportunity. I know there are others who have been involved in championship races, but it's a pretty select group and Matt and his team have a chance to become part of that. They've done a really good job. If you look back over the years of what championship teams and drivers have done, you see Matt and his team doing a lot of the same things. I'm sure they'll be the same way of remembering days that weren't so good that they made in to good days. A lot of that is good fortune, like the night race at Bristol. They were a good car, but ended up with a really good finish because they got the opportunity to come in late and put on tires. Those are the kinds of things you need to have happen."

WHAT STANDS OUT FROM YOUR CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON? "There are a couple of things that come to mind. Certainly winning the Brickyard is one of them, but, as much as anything, two races stand out in my mind. One of them was in California when we had just a terrible day going. We were not running well, but finally got the car running well and then had a flat tire. The fact the tire came off the actual casing and stayed on the track resulted in a caution and that kept us on the lead lap. We literally were looking at finishing 25th to 30th and we came back and finished fifth. That's a huge difference in points that day, but a similar thing happened in the Coca-Cola 600. We actually got lapped that day, but we were able to get it back on a restart and finally got the car adjusted when the sun went down and finished fifth as well. Those two times we could have literally lost 60 to 80 points in each race and that would have been big at that time of the year. I remember talking to Dale Earnhardt about racing for a championship and the opportunity to win it. He told me that when it was all over I wasn't going to remember the really good days. I was going to remember the days that had the potential to be bad, but made something good out of them. That's exactly what's happened because I know we won some races that year, but I specifically remember those two times at California and Charlotte where there was potential for things to go wrong and we pulled out good finishes. The other thing that stands out is the week in New York. It was just incredible. As we think about the changing of the guard with Nextel coming in, if they can even come close to matching what the people at R.J. Reynolds did for the champion they'll be in good shape because it was a week that Kelley and I will never forget. It was really more fun than you should be able to have for that time."

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT MATT AS A POTENTIAL CHAMPION? "First of all, Matt's a racer. He didn't come in this to be a politician or anything and say all the right things. He does that, but I think he'll be a great champion. He knows our sport and everything that he does I think he does with the intention of what's good for his sponsor and the sport. I can't help but think he'll be very good. He's very accommodating. He gives good answers to questions that you see him asked and he seems to make himself readily available to the press whenever they need to talk. Does he have long, drawn out answers? No, he doesn't do that, but a lot of times that's better. I think he'll be a very good representative for us."

IS MATT THE KIND OF RACER YOU'RE COMFORTABLE WITH ON THE TRACK? YOU KNOW HE'LL RACE YOU CLEAN - KIND OF LIKE MARK MARTIN? "Yeah, he is a lot like that but you've got to understand that he's a hard racer too. He'll rub you whenever he thinks he has to do that to get by and there's nothing wrong with that. He's not gonna wreck you. If he happens to hit you and you wreck, it was purely unintentional. I've seen him feel really bad whenever things like that happen. He's hit me before on the race track and has been there to apologize to me or say that it wasn't something he meant to do, but he's someone you really enjoy racing with because he usually doesn't put you in that situation. You also know, though, that you have a race on your hands when you're racing him because he's an excellent driver."


Matt Kenseth grabbed the points lead after a fourth-place finish at Atlanta in the fourth race of the season and has been on top ever since. The smallest lead Kenseth has had since then was when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. pulled within 20 points after the first race of the season at Richmond in May, but that increased to a season-high 436-point advantage following the second Dover event in September. Kenseth, who is trying to win the first NASCAR Winston Cup championship for car owner Jack Roush, won at Las Vegas and leads all drivers in top-10 finishes with 23.

MATT KENSETH - No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Taurus -

IS IT TIME TO START AT LEAST THINKING ABOUT WINNING THE CHAMPIONSHIP? "The bigger your lead is with less races to go you definitely think about it more, but I still think it's at a point where we could still mess it up. I think it's ours to lose. We have to make mistakes and have mechanical difficulties and have wrecks. We'd have to have things happen to be able to lose that many points, but that's not to say those things can't happen. We just have to still run hard, try to win races and just see how it ends up. We'll just take it one week at a time, but, obviously, the farther into the season it gets, the better I feel about it. However, we still have enough racing left where somebody could overcome this lead."

YOU'VE SEEN TIGHT RACES. HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED HOW YOU GOT SUCH A BIG LEAD? "No, I don't get overly confident or count my chickens before they hatch. I just think when we get to the end of the year, I'll sit back and enjoy it if we are lucky enough to get this thing pulled off."

BUT CAN YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE THAT KIND OF LEAD? "Yes and no. I'm happy we have that kind of lead. I don't know whether I stand around and wonder if I can believe it, I just look at every week and honestly wish it was a little bit bigger. I'd feel more comfortable (laughing). I'm happy with where we're at and I'm definitely a lot more comfortable than if we had a 100-point lead because we are a couple of races ahead, so that gives us a little more confidence."

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About this article
Series History , NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Bill Elliott , Dale Jarrett , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Kyle Petty , Kevin Harvick , Jack Roush , Harry Gant , Mark Martin , Alan Kulwicki , Davey Allison