CHARLOTTE—Jack Roush didn't need to construct the ideal racer--he already had him in the person of Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth could wheel a race car with the best of drivers. But the Cat in the Hat will be the first to admit he didn’t discover the Cambridge, Wisconsin, native, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2023 on Friday.
That distinction lies first with Robbie Reiser, then with fellow Hall of Famer Mark Martin.
“Most of the good drivers that have come to me have not come because I discovered them myself but because somebody else recommended them and I took their advice,” Roush said. “Mark Martin was racing against Matt in a family-supported team. Robbie Reiser’s family had a race team and Matt was the driver.
“Robbie had been a driver himself on the short tracks around Matt. When he got a little sponsorship, he asked Matt to drive the car. And so, when Matt was driving the car for Robbie, as a hometown boy, he contacted Mark. Matt stayed in touch with Mark for advice in the Busch Grand National Series.”
Martin drove the flagship No. 6 Ford for Roush Racing. Often referred to as the best driver never to win a Cup championship, he finished second in the standings five times over 30 seasons and amassed 40 wins, 56 poles, 271 top fives and 453 top 10s in 882 races. Prior to Kyle Busch’s remarkable run in the Xfinity Series, Martin’s 49 wins (in 236 starts) were the most on the tour.
As a mentor to Kenseth, Martin knew he was Roush material. Driving for Robbie and John Reiser from 1997 to 2003, Kenseth won 14 races and finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the 1998 Busch Grand National Series standings. After a second full season, where Kenseth finished third in points, Roush Racing recruited the 28-year-old driver to pilot the No. 17 Ford.
“Mark had told me at that time, he said, ‘Matt Kenseth asks the right questions. He's got the right background. We need to involve him with our company.’ So on Mark’s recommendation, we found a sponsor and went off and won a championship with him.
“We put forth a great effort to eventually get him with DeWalt and took him to the Cup Series. So Mark Martin has his fingerprints all around Matt Kenseth. Matt was what he considered to be the ideal approach to a driver at that time. And I credit Mark for finding him and for pushing me in that direction.”
Kenseth won the Cup rookie-of-the-year title in 2000 after winning the Coca-Cola 600 in his 18th Cup start. He posted four top fives and 11 top 10s in his debut season. Three years later, Kenseth would claim the 2003 NASCAR Cup.
With his quick wit and acerbic tone, Roush jokes that Kenseth’s nickname “Matt the Brat” served him well.
“Matt the Brat probably sums it up,” Roush said with a smile. “He was a smart ass. And he would (stops to laugh), in an argument with a fellow driver or with an owner he would let himself be known—in a few words—what was on his mind. One day, I had an engine problem with not having enough bottom-end torque in my engines. He finally just got in front of me and says, ‘What the f*** are you going to do with these engines?’ And I was the engine guy! You know, if there was anything I would have been protective of it would’ve been the engines.
“So he has little patience for fools. He didn't suffer fools very well.”
Kenseth remained loyal to Roush for 13 seasons. Together, they won 24 Cup races. In 2013, Kenseth joined Joe Gibbs Racing, where he added 15 victories to his resume. He returned to Roush in 2018 in an attempt to revitalize the program before concluding his Cup career with Ganassi Racing in 2020.
Kenseth’s retirement ended an era of drivers that worked on their own cars and paid their dues prior to being promoted to NASCAR’s top tour.
“He's a very, very able competitor, and he's a good driver and he had his own code,” Roush said. “Drivers have their own code. They're either dishonest and don't do the same thing all the time, or they'll do what they expect you to do to them when the time comes.
“And he didn't abide fools well. He would exact the price on somebody that mistreated him.”
That was no more apparent than when Kenseth got extreme revenge on Joey Logano in 2015 at Martinsville Speedway. Two weeks earlier at Kansas, Logano spun Kenseth out with five laps remaining and Kenseth leading the race. The victory would have locked Kenseth into the Round of 8. With 45 laps remaining in the Goody’s 500 at Martinsville, Kenseth pile-drove Logano into the Turn 1 wall. If Kenseth wasn’t going to the Championship round, neither was Logano.
Still, for the majority of his career, Kenseth was comfortable staying under the radar. While qualifying wasn’t necessarily his strength, Kenseth’s consistency kept him in the hunt.
“His family and his father took him and supported him in the short track racing,” Roush said. “If he wasted a set of tires, or if he knocked the snout off the car, they didn't eat for a while. And so, it left a scar on him where he didn't want to use his car up to the point where he couldn’t race.
“In that respect, he reminded me of David Pearson. The Wood Brothers always said they could find out how fast their car was when it was time for the money run. And Kenseth was the same way. You'd find out what they had when it came down to the last lap or the last fuel run how much car he had.”
Roush isn’t surprised that Kenseth is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“No, I'm not at all,” he said.