The race car fan grew wide-eyed when he saw the two Winston Cup
drivers walk into Redbone Alley, a Florence, S.C., restaurant, in
mid-March. As Matt Kenseth and Jeff Green waited to be seated,
the fan, who was wearing a hat with the DeWalt team logo,
strolled over to the drivers, who had competed in that
afternoon's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington. He asked
for an autograph from Green, a back-of-the-pack racer only the
most devout NASCAR fans would pick out of a crowd. As Green
happily obliged, the fan turned his attention to Kenseth, whose
sponsor is DeWalt, and...nothing, not even the faintest flicker
"What's up?" an amused Kenseth asked as the fan continued to
"I can't believe I just got Jeff Green's autograph," he replied.
"This is my lucky day."
Kenseth had an urge to tell the man his deal--that he was the
driver of the DeWalt car, that he had finished eighth that day.
Instead Kenseth, The Winston Cup Driver Nobody Knows, let the
moment pass. "I loved it," says Kenseth, laughing at the memory.
"I love not being recognized."
His days of anonymity, however, are numbered. In a Winston Cup
season in which 12 drivers have won the first 15 races, Kenseth
has built a cushy lead atop the points standings because he's
been the most consistently good racer. Following his fourth-place
finish in the Sirius 400 in Michigan on Sunday, the 31-year-old
Midwesterner had seven top five finishes, 13 top 10 finishes and
a 185-point lead over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. He will be
tough to pass: Since 1975, only one driver (Bobby Allison in '81)
has held a lead of at least 180 points after 15 races and
Though he won a Winston Cup-best five races in 2002, Kenseth
wound up eighth in the standings, thanks to 11 finishes of 30th
or lower. This year he has only one victory--at Las Vegas in
early March--but no finishes worse than 22nd; by contrast, his
closest competitors, Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, have finished out
of the top 30 three times and twice, respectively. "In terms of
staying out of trouble, there's no driver in the world who is
closer to David Pearson than Matt," says veteran Jimmy Spencer,
referring to the NASCAR legend who won 105 races and three points
titles from 1960 through '86. "He knows his car's limitations,
and he doesn't break equipment."
With the advent of deep-pocketed racing teams and their dozens of
specialists, most of today's young drivers don't take the time to
learn how things work under the hood. Kenseth, though, is a
throwback to the days when drivers operated on shoestring budgets
and tinkered with their engines in the backyard, not in some
Garage Mahal. He has been a devoted gearhead ever since he took
apart a lawn mower engine when he was nine. That technical acumen
also makes him one of the circuit's best drivers at working with
a crew chief to identify problems in the car's setup. Whereas
drivers are frequently vague in the analysis of their car's
problems--it's running loose, it's running tight--Kenseth will
suggest the precise fix that needs to be made. "When Matt tells
us to make a change, I'd say he's right 96 percent of the time,"
says Mike Calinoff, Kenseth's spotter. "Drivers often give
suggestions, but not like Matt's."
Kenseth's other great strength is his exceptional track
awareness. At the Food City 500 in Bristol in late March, for
example, he was hurtling down the backstretch at 135 mph in heavy
traffic when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed an error
on the scoreboard. "I'm in fourth, not fifth," Kenseth told
Calinoff over the radio. Calinoff checked it out and, to his
amazement, his driver was right.
Kenseth developed his racing instincts on the tracks of
Wisconsin, whose location in the U.S. (read: outside the South)
belies its rich racing history. Indeed, no state north of the
Mason-Dixon line has played a bigger role in NASCAR's growth from
a regional sport to a national, multibillion-dollar colossus.
Long before Roy Kenseth purchased a 1983 Camaro on a whim for his
13-year-old son, Matt, with the promise that the boy could race
it after he turned 16, tracks across the Badger State were
developing such future standouts as Dave Marcis, Dick Trickle and
the best of them all, the late Alan Kulwicki, who only 4 1/2
months before dying in a 1993 plane crash became the first Yankee
in 43 years to win a NASCAR title.
From the start of his racing career Kenseth appeared destined for
success. In 1991, at 19, he became the youngest winner in the
history of the ARTGO Challenge Series race in LaCrosse, Wis. One
of his rivals was Robbie Reiser, who competed against Kenseth
five nights a week. "We weren't the best of friends," says
Reiser, 38, who's now Kenseth's crew chief, "but even then Matt
never made mistakes."
By 1997 Reiser had given up driving and had bought a Busch Series
team. Eight races into that season, after his driver, Tim Bender,
injured his back in an accident, Reiser put in a call to Kenseth,
who was driving in the ASA Series, and asked him to join his
team. Kenseth jumped at the chance and finished out the season
with seven top 10 finishes in 21 starts. At season's end,
however, Reiser lost his sponsor, which forced him to borrow more
than $800,000 to keep the team running. Sitting in the back of
Roy Kenseth's van on their way to Daytona for the first Busch
race of the '98 season, Reiser told Kenseth, "You should start
looking for another ride. I'm about out of money."
"I'm not giving up," replied Kenseth. "If we run strong, we'll
get a sponsor."
After Kenseth finished sixth at Daytona, Reiser figured he had
enough money for one or two more races. Then he hit the jackpot
the following week when, at Rockingham, Kenseth passed Tony
Stewart on the last lap for his first Busch Series win. Reiser
picked up Lycos as a backer, and the team finished second in the
points race behind Earnhardt. The next year Roush Racing signed
Kenseth with the promise of a full-time Winston Cup ride in 2000.
"From where Robbie and I started to where we are now is
mind-blowing," says Kenseth, "but we got here because we're so
serious about our jobs."
Indeed, Kenseth is as intense as any driver in NASCAR. Walking
around the garage, he wears the pained expression of a man who
just had a root canal. Kenseth's strictly business demeanor has
fueled the perception that he lacks personality. Those close to
him, however, insist that he has life-of-the-party potential. "I
read stories that say Matt is quiet and distant, but that's not
the Matt I know," says his wife, Katie.
Kenseth is well-known among friends as a practical joker. (If
you're at a party with Kenseth, don't stand near the pool.) To
get an idea of how his sense of humor works, consider this story
involving Earnhardt. A few years ago Junior, whose close
friendship with Kenseth dates to 1998, when they were running
against each other in the Busch Series, innocently remarked to
Kenseth that Katie was homely looking. "Where I come from," says
Junior, "saying someone is homely is a compliment." When Kenseth
playfully passed along the remark to Katie, she was far from
flattered. For several months, whenever Katie saw Junior, she'd
flash him the evil eye. Instead of helping his pal out of the
doghouse by explaining to Katie what Junior meant, Kenseth
watched his friend squirm every time Junior and Katie were in the
same room. "Matt got me good," says Earnhardt.
Kenseth has been getting Earnhardt pretty good at the track as
well. Since breaking into Winston Cup together in 2000, Kenseth
has finished higher in the standings than the more celebrated
Earnhardt twice in three seasons. On Sunday, Kenseth nearly ran
his pal into the wall on a last-lap pass, which prompted a vow of
payback. ("Every time we're racing, he runs me into the wall,"
Earnhardt said. "We're buddies, so hopefully he won't get mad
when I plant him.") The foundation, it appears, has been laid for
NASCAR's next big rivalry.
Five days before the Michigan race, Kenseth had been mulling that
rivalry from the back seat of Reiser's Lincoln Aviator as it
pulled up to a stoplight on Concord Boulevard just outside
Charlotte. As another car stopped next to Reiser's, Kenseth said,
"We gotta take him! We gotta!" Reiser, a gleam of mischief in his
eyes, didn't need to be told again. When the light flipped green,
he hit the gas and dusted the other car. Kenseth and Reiser
laughed loudly as they zoomed away, another small victory for
NASCAR's most dominant team in 2003.
COLOR PHOTO: JON FERREY/GETTY IMAGES (INSET) PULLING AWAY Kenseth (inset) and crew have only one victory in2003, but 13 top 10 finishes have given them a comfortable lead.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIC JAMISON/AP [See caption above]