When he was begging his dad and uncles for a chance to work on their race cars, when he first heard super late models ripping around the big half-mile Madison International Speedway near their home or when he first got the chance to race one of them, Matt Kenseth wasn’t thinking about NASCAR.
Not in that way, anyway.
“I never really felt like it was a realistic dream or anything like that,” Kenseth said, so many years later.
And as for the Hall of Fame, well, NASCAR didn’t even have one of those when Kenseth was growing up in Cambridge, Wisconsin, in the 1980s.
So no, that couldn’t have been a dream either.
But the realities are these:
Kenseth spent most of 24 years driving stock cars at the highest levels. He won a championship and 39 Cup Series races, including two Daytona 500s, as well as another 29 races in NASCAR’s second division now known as the Xfinity Series.
And on Wednesday the Hall’s selection committee decided that career made him worthy of joining the likes of Bill France, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and the other legends of his sport.
A first-time nominee, Kenseth will be enshrined as part of the Class of 2023 along with four-time Cup champion crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine from the modern-era ballot and pioneer selection Herschel McGriff. Induction is set for Jan. 20.
“I don’t want to minimize it,” Kenseth said Sunday, while returning to Madison to race, “because it’s a huge honor just to be on that list (of nominations), whether you make it or not. But I’ve got to be honest. I haven’t spent much time thinking about it.”
Barely 72 hours before the deliberations, he said he hadn’t even paid attention to the fact voting was Wednesday.
“As you get older things like that are really cool,” Kenseth continued. “But I never really raced for that kind of stuff. I always raced for that day and to try to win and try to beat the best and do the best you can.”
Kenseth became the second driver from Wisconsin to be voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, following Alan Kulwicki, the late 1992 champion from Greenfield, who was enshrined in 2019.
Fifty-eight drivers, team owners and other figures from the sport have been enshrined dating to 2010.
Kenseth, 50, was a 24-year-old champion at Madison and a regular at short track specials beyond his home state when the late engine builder Carl Wegner gave him his first start in what was then the Busch Series. On May 25, 1996, he started 37th and finished 31st at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Less than a year later, former Wisconsin rival Robbie Reiser brought Kenseth into the series fulltime. He quickly caught the attention of Mark Martin, then an active driver with Midwest roots and now a Hall of Famer.
“I went immediately to (team owner) Jack Roush and told him: Hey, I know you don’t have a place for this kid, but you gotta get him,” Martin said in a 2017 interview. “You gotta get him signed up. He’s the one.”
Kenseth’s Cup debut came in 1998, subbing for Bill Elliott after Elliott’s father died, and he finished sixth, which matched Elliott’s best result that year.
Four years and three days after his NASCAR debut and at the same site, Kenseth scored his first Cup win in Roush’s No. 17 Ford. He won rookie of the year honors that season and subsequently delivered Roush his first Cup title in 2003, locking up the title with a race to spare. The following season, NASCAR moved to a playoff-type system that would prevent an early clinch.
Kenseth would win 24 Cup races for Roush and give Roush Fenway Racing its first Daytona 500 win in 2009 and another in 2012. He won 15 more times with Joe Gibbs Racing from 2013-17. Although 2017 was Kenseth’s last full season, he did return to Roush to try to help rebuild that team and joined Chip Ganassi Racing to finish out 2020 after Kyle Larson was suspended.
“I had always been impressed with his talent and his ability,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., a longtime friend and rival and recent inductee, said during their final fulltime season. “He was as good a driver as anybody that is in the series today.”
Kenseth won the biggest races in the sport other than the Brickyard 400, although he finished runner-up four times, including his final try.
Kenseth made the playoffs in 13 of his final 14 full-time seasons and finished in the top five of the standings seven times. He ranks 17th all time for top-10 finishes in the Cup Series with 331 in 697 starts (47.5%).
Every Hall-eligible driver with more Cup victories than Kenseth’s 39 already had been elected.
The biggest blemish on Kenseth’s record is the 2015 episode in which he rammed Joey Logano’s car, knocking him out of the playoffs in retaliation for Logano spinning him earlier in the season. Kenseth was suspended for two races.
“You certainly learn about who’s your friend and who’s not. Who cares about you, the person, and who doesn’t. Who’s a good-time friend, and who’s a friend all the time even when the chips are down,” Kenseth said in the offseason that followed.
“There’s always things you learn no matter what you go through in life, good and bad.”
And sometimes things happen to a person they never could have imagined.
Matt Kenseth by the numbers
1 Cup Series title (2003)
2 Daytona 500 wins (2009, 2012)
29 Xfinity Series victories in 288 starts
39 Cup Series victories (tied for 21st all-time)
182 Top-five finishes in 697 starts (26.1%)
331 Top-10s (47.5%)