Kenseth quietly climbs to top of Winston Cup rookie race

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, July 25, 2000 -- In February, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the odds-on favorite to become NASCAR Winston Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year in 2000. Someone forgot to tell Matt Kenseth. The NASCAR Winston...

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, July 25, 2000 -- In February, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the odds-on favorite to become NASCAR Winston Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year in 2000. Someone forgot to tell Matt Kenseth. The NASCAR Winston Cup Series next comes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400 on Aug. 5. And Kenseth, the quiet driver from Wisconsin, leads the rookie point standings, not the son of one of auto racing's most famous race drivers. Kenseth, who drives the DeWalt Power Tools Ford jointly owned by Jack Roush and Mark Martin, holds down 12th in the Winston Cup standings with 2,228 points. Earnhardt is 14th with 2,068 following last Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono International Raceway. Kenseth finished fifth and Earnhardt 13th at Pocono. But the rookie of the year award is not determined by the final standings. Instead, a point system rewards drivers in various ways for high finishes. Kenseth leads that one, 227-206, over Earnhardt, with Dave Blaney third with 150. So far this season, Earnhardt has won two Winston Cup races, Kenseth one. At season's end, the drivers count only their top 16 finishes. That still doesn't determine the winner, because then a panel of top NASCAR officials and the reigning Winston Cup champion meet, discuss the candidates, vote on how they fared in a trio of categories and rank the rookie participants on a 10 points-to-one basis. These points are added to those accumulated on the track to determine the year's top rookie. All of this doesn't bother Kenseth whatsoever. He's just happy to have a full-time ride in NASCAR Winston Cup. "I expected it to be tough," he said about his rookie battle with Earnhardt. "It's been going good for us so far this year, but there's a lot of competition in the rookie-of-the-year battle this year. There's a lot of good race drivers, a lot of real good teams. "There's a lot races left (the Brickyard 400 is No. 20 of 34) to do this year, but I'm happy with our first half of the season. If we can improve on it a little the second half, keep our consistency but up our performance a little bit so we can finish a little bit better a few times, I think we'll have a good shot at it." Kenseth and Earnhardt are opposites in many ways. Kenseth grew up outside of Madison, Wis., and won a number of track championships in the state. He then moved to the American Speed Association series and from there to the NASCAR's Busch Series for two seasons, finishing second and third in the series points. His father helped him launch his career at a young age but is unknown to racing fans outside the Wisconsin area. Earnhardt, of course, has been around big-time racing most of his life. He is driving for his father, who seeks a record eighth Winston Cup championship this season, and is nearly 3 years younger than Kenseth. He won the Busch Series title in 1998 and 1999 and slipped smoothly into Winston Cup with Budweiser sponsorship. Kenseth's first big break came in 1997 when Robbie Reiser, a driver he knew from Wisconsin, called and asked if he'd like to take over the seat in his Busch car. Reiser now is Kenseth's crew chief. "He kinda called me out of the blue and gave me a shot at it," Kenseth said. "It was pretty exciting. I didn't know what to expect." Kenseth, who met Mark Martin that year, got his initial Winston Cup ride as a substitute driver for injured Bill Elliott in 1998. He turned in a satisfying top-10 finish. "That was pretty neat," he said, "I mean, to get to drive a guy's car like that. I never had a Winston Cup start before and to ask me to go in there was quite an honor." That opened the door for him to drive five races for Jack Roush last season. He returned to Dover and drove to fourth. "I've been working towards this (Winston Cup ride) for some time," Kenseth said. "So Mark wanted to be a little part of the program, at least. He's a teammate and part owner. It's a lot of fun to be able to work with him and Jeff Burton, and I can learn a lot from them." When Kenseth tested at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 17-18, it was his first visit to the famed racing facility although he only lived a five-hour drive away. "It's pretty cool," he said. "There's a lot of history here, and this is one of the tracks you've always heard about. It's neat to finally come here and see it in person. It's always different when you come and see it than when you see it on TV." Kenseth said his goals in the Brickyard are to qualify in the top 25 and finish in the top 15. Tony Stewart, last year's Rookie of the Year in Winston Cup, predicted last winter that both rookie challengers would win three races this season and reiterated that statement during recent GM testing at Indy. "We'll do the best we can and see how we finish," Kenseth said. "Dale Jr., he's going to accomplish that. He's already pretty much done it. I'm not too worried about him. "But this is a tough business. At the beginning of the year with those new tires and stuff, we were kind of at an even keel because none of last year's stuff was working for anybody. Now everybody's getting caught up on that. We need to be caught back up on that to be more competitive."

-IMS-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Bill Elliott , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Jack Roush , Dave Blaney , Mark Martin