Kenseth Turned Heads at Dover

Kenseth turns heads at Dover DOVER, Del. (Sept. 23, 1998) Stock in young racing star Matt Kenseth experienced a dramatic upward spiral over the weekend with his impressive performances in the races held at Dover Downs International...

Kenseth turns heads at Dover

DOVER, Del. (Sept. 23, 1998) Stock in young racing star Matt Kenseth experienced a dramatic upward spiral over the weekend with his impressive performances in the races held at Dover Downs International Speedway.

Kenseth had his Robbie Reiser-prepared Lycos Chevrolet at the point for 158 of the 200 laps en route to a dominating win in Saturday's NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division MBNA Gold 200 Busch Series race. His third win of the season (and career) enabled him to gain 43 points on series points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. with five races remaining on the schedule. Kenseth now trails Earnhardt by 97 points.

The 26-year-old Cambridge, Wis., native made his NASCAR Winston Cup debut in spectacular fashion in Sunday's MBNA 400. In a substitute driving role for Bill Elliott, Kenseth piloted the Elliott Racing-fielded, McDonald's-sponsored Ford Taurus from a 16th-place start all the way up to second, before posting an astonishing sixth-place finish. The finish equaled the team's best showings of the year as Elliott finished sixth at Rockingham (Feb. 22) and Michigan (June 14). Team manager Mike Beam tapped Kenseth to fill in for Elliott at Dover after Elliott's father, George, died Thursday. Services for the elder Elliott were held on Sunday in Dawsonville, Ga.

Kenseth's post-performance accolades came from every direction. From the broadcast booth to pit road, from the grandstand to the garage area and from the VIP suites to the local bars and restaurants afterwards, much of the race talk centered around the weekend exploits of the young charger.

"We've had a suite here for more than 12 years now and his was, without a doubt, the most impressive back-to-back races I've seen in one weekend," said Dick Carrey, the Miller beer distributor from Salisbury, Md., after Sunday's race from a first-turn suite at Dover Downs. "Somebody tell me just who is Matt Kenseth and where the heck did he come from?"

A good way to answer Carrey's questions would be to suggest that Kenseth is the next potential racing "superstar" coming from the Midwest, following in the footsteps of the likes of Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and the late Alan Kulwicki. Perhaps an even better description of Kenseth would be to say that he is a lot of Martin, a touch of Wallace and a dose of Kulwicki all wrapped up in one powerful package.

Like Martin, who rose through the short track ranks to win on the competitive American Speed Association (ASA) series at the tender age of 18 (on 8/19/78 at Anderson Speedway in Indiana) and become the youngest victor ever on the circuit at the time, Kenseth grew up racing and winning as a teenager. He was only 19 years of age when he became the youngest driver to ever win on the tough ARTGO racing circuit (on 6/19/81 at LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway in Wisconsin). It was Martin who previously held the record. Immediately after the win, the Kenseth-to-Martin comparisons began among short track racing enthusiasts.

Like Wallace, well known for his background in chassis construction in his early career, Kenseth, too, boasts a similar "learning everything from the ground up" racing background. Wallace owned his own Poor Boy Chassis company and labored in the Missouri shops of noted car builders Larry Phillips and Glen Bopp.

He drove his own cars in the early years, then teamed up with Louisiana car-owner Nicky Prejean to win the 1983 ASA title before forging his successful NASCAR career. Kenseth raced his family-owned cars in the early years (made deal with his dad at age 13 that by working on the car first, he could drive when he turned 16) and spent three years helping construct cars at Lefthander Chassis in Rockford, Ill., before teaming with short track car owners Fred Neilsen, Carl Wegner and Gerry Gunderman on the course that has now led him to the driver's seat of once-rival Reiser's NASCAR Busch Series cars.

Like Kulwicki, Kenseth honed his driving skills on the Wisconsin short tracks. Kulwicki, the determined and devoted Wisconsin native, claimed race wins and track championships at Wisconsin International Raceway and won the 1981 edition of the prestigious Slinger Nationals (at Slinger Super Speedway in Wisconsin) before storming through the ASA ranks and into everlasting Winston Cup notoriety.

Kenseth won track championships at W.I.R. and Madison International Speedway in 1994 and the 1994 edition of the Slinger Nationals (youngest driver ever to win) on his course toward the big leagues of stock car racing. It was Kenseth who took the checkered flag in the first-ever Alan Kulwicki Memorial race at Slinger after Kulwicki's untimely death in 1993.

"Matt's win on Saturday wasn't unexpected, but his degree of dominance and the team's strength with a brand new race car was," said Eli Gold, anchor for TNN's telecasts for both Saturday and Sunday races. "We televised the races that he won at Rockingham and at Colorado Springs so his Saturday win really didn't come as a surprise, but Matt's run in the Winston Cup race was unexpected and downright impressive. To have handled all the attention and the pressure as he did and perform so well was something special for a driver with no experience at the top level of our sport."

"Not only was I impressed by Matt in both Dover races, I have been impressed by him over the entire year," said Allen Bestwick, anchor for both Saturday and Sunday MRN Radio broadcasts. "If the nickname 'Iceman' wasn't already taken, it certainly would be well deserved by Matt Kenseth. He is exceedingly calm in all the potentially pressure situations. To see him running up there with the best stock car drivers in the world like he did in the MBNA 400 was impressive indeed."

"He's personable. He has a good head on his shoulders and he proved today that he could really drive a race car," said Buddy Baker, the noted former driver who serves as Gold's "color commentator" for TNN after Sunday's broadcast.

"He is a superstar," said Sunday's race winner Martin of Kenseth, his self-acclaimed protg,. "Everybody's gonna be after him after today and I think it's kind of funny because he's just not available. We've got a plan mapped out for him. We're proud to have recognized that and reel him in. (Kenseth is under a development contract to Roush Racing. He serves as a team test driver, while his NASCAR Busch Series effort is being provided marketing and sponsorship direction from the Roush organization.) He's a fine young man and they don't come along like him very often."

"The kid's got talent, that's for sure," said fifth-place finisher Wallace, who battled side-by-side with Kenseth for much of the final 20 laps. "He's smooth and races clean. I was very comfortable out there racing beside him and that says a lot for a rookie driver. Like they say, the kid drives a pretty wheel." Kenseth's sixth-place finish, ironically, was the highest first-race finish among any active Winston Cup driver since Wallace placed second in March of 1980 in his series debut.

"For as young as he is, and for his knowledge of race cars, he's the next Jeff Gordon," said Beam on pit road after the race. "This is such a good young man here. He's the type of guy who is so loyal it's amazing. I think Matt has a plan. He knows these race cars from end to end, and he even builds his own shocks. He's not one of your run-of-the-mill people. I'm really impressed with him."

"Looks like we're going to have us another Wisconsin wonder in Winston Cup in another couple of years," said Peter Jellen, transport driver and gas man for Joe Gibbs Racing , in the garage area after Sunday's race. Jellen served in the same capacity for Kulwicki's 1992 Winston Cup championship team. "His manners remind me of Mark and his style reminds me quite a bit of Alan."

And, how has Kenseth handled all of the post-race commotion?

"I don't know when all of this will really sink in," Kenseth said. "Like I said before, I'm a racer. You're never going to make it to the top if you're intimidated. It was a sad situation that worked out providing me with the opportunity to drive for the Elliotts and I hope that we were able to help Bill and his family out in a bad time for them. Sunday was fun and I gained a lot of experience that I know I'll be thankful for in the future. But right now, focusing on the next Busch race at Charlotte is what's most important. We never give up and we still have a shot at winning the championship.

"I know one thing that I'm proud of from this weekend and that's the fact that I won't be wearing those cheap sunglasses any more. "After we won the race on Saturday, all the Sunday newspapers had the photos of me wearing those nine dollar shades. I met Todd Hayes, the Oakley guy, on Sunday morning. He grabbed those cheap sunglasses out of my hands and now we're on an Oakley deal. "

The next race for Reiser Racing and driver Matt Kenseth -- sans cheap sunglasses -- is the Oct. 3 NASCAR Busch Series All Pro Bumper to Bumper 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Source: NASCAR Online

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Rusty Wallace , Buddy Baker , Mark Martin , Alan Kulwicki
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing