this is different.
With Alan Kulwicki, his selection to the NASCAR Hall of Fame was more about a never-to-be-replicated story from his NASCAR career than about numbers.
In addition, he was a few years on the cusp of being a finalist before being elected as part of the Class of 2019, 27 years after Kulwicki won the tournament and 26 years after his death.
You would have had to start following racing at a young age or at least be in your 60s to see firsthand what got Kulwicki from karting through local and regional cars and finally into NASCAR. If you were younger, you might have read about his intelligence and toughness, but you didn’t really experience that when he raced Hales Corners or Slinger or in the days before he packed up and left Greenfield for North Carolina Sports Center.
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Matt Kenseth came a generation later.
If you caught the end of Kulwicki’s career, you’ve probably seen Kenseth’s early part, maybe his first win at Columbus 151 Speedway in 1988 or his climb on the short Wisconsin tracks.
But if you come a decade later, you can still see his rise to hero. If you only caught NASCAR in your twenties, you could have seen Kenseth in what were statistically some of his best years. You probably saw him at a local race last year.
Perspective affects view.
So when Kenseth delivers his speech Friday night into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as the second inductee in his state, who will you see?
A 50-year-old retiree in a suit? A veteran racer trying to help a struggling team? A driver under 40 who has lifted the Daytona 500 Cup for the second time in three years?
Or maybe a shy 25-year-old who is grateful to have a job driving race cars but isn’t sure what all went wrong with that.
For some reason, this is the vision that keeps popping up in my head. I see Kenseth standing in a temporary Busch Series garage area on the Milwaukee Mile, hands in his pockets, trying to strike up a conversation with a familiar reporter who was equally bemused about how this works on a new level.
So yeah, it’s still hard to understand that Matt Kenseth is a Hall of Famer, even with his slam-dunk credentials.
It’s just… different.
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“Since I had seen him since the first time he came to Slinger at age 18, he was absolutely unforgettable,” said Todd Behling, longtime track announcer at Slinger Speedway and host of the “LTN Hour” radio show.
“I was a broadcaster there, in my fifth year when it came out. And I knew what to expect from the drivers at Slinger, who were good drivers, who were bad drivers, who were guys who were in over their heads, who were supposed to be better but weren’t. Here it goes. The kid….at the time, 18 was just a baby, and he was running around with Lowell Bennett and with Al Scheal and Conrad Morgan and Robbie Reiser and just dealing with them. I couldn’t believe what I was watching.
“I’ve always felt this kind of exceptional talent…that’s what it takes to be a successful NASCAR driver. I said this. I’ve been saying it over and over again. I always expected it, but you have to play the hand that was dealt before you got to that point. And I fell.” The cards are in place, and I’ll be damned, lo and behold, he wins races and the championship.
“I felt capable from the first time I saw him, but to expect it to come this far is unlikely and yet it happened before our eyes. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.”
In NASCAR, a good starting hand can turn into a loser in no time.
If old rival Robbie Reiser hadn’t put him in the Busch car, Kenseth couldn’t have shown what he could do at the proverbial next level when he did. If he doesn’t win with a truly unsupported car in the second race of 1998, maybe the team won’t make it. If Kenseth Roush Racing hadn’t left for Joe Gibbs Racing—a year after he won his second Daytona 500—his career might have ended a dozen wins earlier.
Kenseth has said over the years that he’s never considered himself anything particularly special, just someone surrounded by the right people and the right opportunities.
It’s true that many drivers with great talent never get the chance to prove it and some drivers with less skill get more advances than they deserve. This is also part of the game, but Kenseth played his hand really well.
That kid from Cambridge—”Matt the Brat,” whom Behling called, to Kenseth’s continued chagrin—went on to win the 2003 championship and 39 Cup races, including the Daytona 500s.
He also came out of his shell. Usually reserved, Kenseth allowed his quick and often sarcastic sense of humor to show.
After winning the 2009 Daytona 500, he cut the road for a local columnist who six years ago described as boring, “going to New York tomorrow night and painting the city plaid.” And last season while working as an analyst for Fox, Kenseth wisely cracked with Joey Logano, the driver Kenseth intentionally crashed in 2015, an accident that resulted in a two-race suspension.
This meeting with Logano may be the most indelible memory of Kenseth for some fans. Such a stark redemption stands out even more when it comes from a driver who has so quietly made his mark on the sport.
Kenseth is tied for 21St On the list of all-time victory leaders. Only four of his predecessors are not in the Hall of Fame, and that is because they are still active. (Side note: One of those is Jimmie Johnson, whose 83 victories and seven titles include six races and two championship chases in which Kenseth finished second.)
Below Kenseth on that list are the 15 drivers already honored plus one, Herschel McGriff, who will go into the Hall of Fame on Friday with him and crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine.
So the numbers don’t lie. Kenseth totally belongs in the Hall of Fame.
It’s strange for some of us to think of him being with the likes of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Maybe he’s a stranger to Kenseth, too.
“I wish I’d seen Matt and Alan race against each other. I think that would have been pretty cool,” Behling said. “On the one hand, it’s a great example of turning the page.”
The Hall of Fame turns out to be where they finally meet.