It was back in the other century when Matt Kenseth made his Sprint Cup debut.
It was a surprise appearance. Bill Elliott needed a substitute driver at Dover, and Kenseth, racing in the Nationwide Series, was tapped.
Kenseth took wild advantage of the opportunity, conquering the superfast Dover mile and finishing a stunning sixth.
The race was on.
Kenseth, who had the vocal support of driver Mark Martin, later arrived full-time in the Cup series at Roush Fenway Racing to begin a career run that would result in the 2003 Cup title and – some think – the Chase format. That season saw Kenseth record one of history’s most consistently excellent runs as he scored 25 top-10 finishes. Although he won only one race, he led the point standings 34 straight weeks and claimed the title.
Flash forward to the end of this year’s schedule, and Kenseth recorded his 400th career start in the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead, FL.
The Wisconsin driver is now officially a veteran, and Ross, his son, is on the verge of breaking into the sport’s higher levels. Yet Kenseth remains one of the sport’s smartest, most reliable drivers – one of the modern era’s great point racers. He finished fifth in the standings this season despite not scoring a win.
Kenseth and his team have been in an uphill climb since winning the first two races of the 2009 season.
He has raced in the Chase but has fallen short of repeating his championship run since the switch to the “playoff” format.
“It’s been a disappointing few years for me and probably for the team, as well,” Kenseth said.
He crossed the 400 barrier on Homestead weekend and got a bit philosophical about it.
“It’s just a number,” he said. “It means you’re old [he’s 38] and you’ve been around for a long time, but I am proud of that. … I thought of Robbie [Reiser, his former crew chief] and his dad and his family giving me a chance to run his Nationwide car to start with.
“Without that, I probably wouldn’t have any starts, and without Mark Martin’s help, so you kind of look back and think of that stuff for a few minutes.”
The kid who built his reputation racing on tough Midwestern short tracks against drivers like Dick Trickle, Ted Musgrave and Rich Bickle will start work on his second 400 in February.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.