Matt Kenseth is certainly one of today's top stars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He has a Winston Cup at home on his mantle, alongside two Harley J. Earl Trophies he earned for his 2009 and 2012 Daytona 500 triumphs. He also possesses one of the best - and most dry - senses of humor in the sport. While he may not provide the sort of juicy soundbytes of contemporaries Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, the soft-spoken Wisconsinite's interviews are can't-miss events. One never knows what might come out of Kenseth's mouth as he deadpans his way through a conversation.
In September 1998, Matthew Roy Kenseth was enjoying a breakout first full season in the NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) Series. Through 25 races on that tour, he'd won twice in Robbie Reiser's No. 17 Chevrolet and sat 140 points behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the battle for the championship crown. A protege of Mark Martin, Kenseth's future as a driver for Roush Racing in Winston Cup competition was all but assured. He'd attempted his Cup debut in one of Roush's cars at Talladega that April, but he wasn't quite fast enough to make the show.
Kenseth would wind up making his debut at Dover on September 20, but it was not intended for him to run that race. Rather, Kenseth got the nod to drive Bill Elliott's Ford as Georgia's first family of motorsports grieved the loss of their patriarch, George Elliott.
Though Elliott had already endured a tough season on the track even before the passing of his father, the No. 94 team was ranked 18th in the standings. That meant Kenseth would be able to use a provisional spot to make the field if he couldn't go fast enough in first or second-round qualifying. As it turned out, he made the show easily, qualifying 16th-quickest (the top-25 fastest cars on the first day were locked in on speed in the old two-round style of qualifying that went away after the 2000 season). Martin, who had recommended his protege to drive the car, won the pole.
On Saturday afternoon, Kenseth dominated the MBNA Gold 200 for his third and final victory of the 1998 Busch Grand National season. Earnhardt Jr. finished eighth, allowing Kenseth to wipe 43 points off "Little E's" lead with five races remaining.
The next day, Kenseth hopped in Elliott's McDonalds "Get Back with Big Mac" Taurus. The car had a "groovy" 1960s paint scheme in honor of the sandwich's 30th anniversary (check it out, maaaaan), making it plenty easy to spot from the grandstands and on television when racing among the other 42 cars. That would have come in handy for the other drivers needing to avoid the kid in his debut, as well.
There wound up being no need to be wary of Kenseth: he had the best debut in NASCAR's top division in nearly 20 years. In fact, his sixth-place finish equaled Elliott's best result all season in just the second year of his full-time career that Awesome Bill from Dawsonville didn't record a top-five finish.
The winner that day? Mark Martin, who led all but 21 of the 400 laps in possibly the most dominant performance of his entire career.
Kenseth went on to finish second in the 1998 Busch standings, 48 behind Earnhardt Jr. The following season, Earnhardt won again, while a last-race accident dropped Kenseth to third. "Matt the Brat" got his revenge in 2000, beating out his friendly rival for the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award.
In 2003, Kenseth claimed the last championship ever under the R.J. Reynolds-sponsorship of NASCAR's top division. It was also the final championship won over the course of a full season. NASCAR implemented its "Chase" playoff system the following year in response to Kenseth's '03 campaign that saw him top-10 his rivals to death while scoring just one victory.
Fittingly, the 2003 season that saw Kenseth stand atop the stock car racing world was also the final time the man for whom he substituted in his 1998 debut contested a full schedule of races. Bill Elliott wound up ninth in the final standings, his first top-10 season since 1997.
Next year Kenseth officially joins the Georgia racing family, as he will pilot Joe Gibbs' No. 20 Toyota sponsored by Atlanta-based Home Depot. Smart fans know he was adopted into our great state's motorsports clan 14 years ago, when he helped out the iconic Elliotts in their time of grief.