It has been more than a month since Matt Kenseth made his unexpected return to the NASCAR Cup Series, but the 2003 series champion is on the verge of a milestone start of his own. By taking the green flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 on Sunday, July 5, Kenseth will surpass the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and move into 20th on the all-time Cup starts list with career start number 677.
A native of Cambridge, Wisconsin, Kenseth made his first Cup career start at Dover Downs International Speedway in September 1998. Serving as an interim competitor in the No. 94 McDonald’s Ford for Bill Elliott, who was absent while attending his father’s funeral on race day, Kenseth recorded an impressive sixth-place result in his debut. The following season, Kenseth made five Cup starts in the No. 17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford for car owner Jack Roush with Robbie Reiser serving as crew chief. His best result was a fourth-place finish at Dover in September.
In 2000, Kenseth campaigned on a full-time basis in the Cup Series with Roush Racing. He recorded his first career win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte’s Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May in his 18th series start. He went on to record four top-five results and 11 top-10 results to finish 14th in the final standings and beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the Rookie-of-the-Year title. After going winless in 2001, Kenseth rebounded the following season by winning five races, his first Cup pole and tallying 11 top-five results and 19 top-10 results to conclude the season in eighth in the final standings.
In 2003, Kenseth started the season by finishing 20th in the Daytona 500. He rebounded the following two races by finishing third at North Carolina Speedway and winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. After finishing fourth the following weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kenseth was the points leader. For the remainder of the 2003 Cup season, Kenseth did not win, but he generated a bulk of consistent results that included 11 top-five finishes and 25 top-10 finishes to maintain the lead in the standings through the season’s conclusion. After finishing fourth at North Carolina Speedway, the penultimate race of the season, Kenseth clinched his first NASCAR Cup Series championship with a 226-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson. The championship was a first for Kenseth, crew chief Robbie Reiser and car owner Jack Roush. The following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the final race of the season, Kenseth finished 43rd, last, due to an early engine failure, but he officially wrapped up the title by 90 points over Johnson. To July 1, 2020, Kenseth remains one of four competitors to win a Cup title despite recording a single victory throughout a season.
From 2004 to 2012, Kenseth won 17 races and seven poles while recording 95 top-five finishes and 162 top-10 finishes, all in the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. Among his accomplishments included winning two Daytona 500s, (2009 and 2012), and the 2004 All-Star Race at Charlotte. He made the Chase for the Cup in eight of his nine seasons driving for Roush with a best points result of second in 2006 behind Jimmie Johnson.
In 2013, Kenseth departed Roush and joined forces with Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 20 Dollar General/Husky Tools Toyota Camry in the NASCAR Cup Series, replacing Joey Logano while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. graduated to the Cup Series to drive Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford. After finishing 37th in the Daytona 500 due to an engine failure despite leading 86 laps and finishing seventh the following week at Phoenix, Kenseth scored his first triumph with JGR at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after beating Kasey Kahne on two fresh tires. On that day, Kenseth also became the third Cup driver to win while celebrating a birthday. He went on to win four more races throughout the 26-race regular season, (Kansas Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Kentucky Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway), to enter the Chase as a championship threat against Jimmie Johnson. When the 2013 Chase for the Cup commenced, Kenseth won the opening two races at Chicagoland Speedway and at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and led the standings for six of the final 10 races before Johnson assumed the points lead with three races remaining following his victory at Texas in November. The following race at Phoenix, Kenseth struggled both on the track and in the pits. By finishing 23rd, he entered the finale at Homestead trailing Johnson by 28 points. Though he won the pole, led a race-high 44 laps and finished second at Homestead behind teammate Denny Hamlin, Johnson won his sixth championship with a ninth-place result by 19 points, leaving Kenseth settled as the championship runner-up in his first season with JGR.
From 2014 to 2017, Kenseth won eight races and nine poles while recording 43 top-five finishes and 79 top-10 finishes as driver of the No. 20 Toyota for JGR. He made the Chase in all four seasons with a best points result of fifth in 2016. To July 1, 2020, Kenseth is ranked 22nd on the all-time Cup wins list with 39.
At the conclusion of the 2017 season, Kenseth was left without a full-time ride for the 2018 Cup season as Erik Jones assumed driving responsibilities of the No. 20 JGR Toyota. In May, however, Kenseth rejoined Roush Fenway Racing to split driving responsibilities of the No. 6 Ford Fusion with Trevor Bayne for the remainder of the Cup season. In his first race of the 2018 season, Kenseth finished 36th after being involved in a late multi-car wreck. In his 15-race slate with RFR, Kenseth’s highlights included winning a stage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in September, finishing seventh at Phoenix in November and finishing sixth the following week in the finale at Homestead.
After not making a start in NASCAR last season, Kenseth was named driver of the No. 42 Credit One Bank/McDonald’s/Clover Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE for Chip Ganassi Racing for the remainder of the 2020 season following the suspension of Kyle Larson and his use of a live racial slur during an iRacing event. In his first race in over a year at Darlington Raceway in May, Kenseth finished 10th. For the next 10 races, he has finished in the top 15 three more times, which includes both Pocono Raceway races last weekend.
Through his first 11 races of the season since May, Kenseth has achieved only one top-10 finish, two stage points and is 30th in the regular-season series standings, trailing points leader Kevin Harvick by 399 points and the top-16 cutline to the Playoffs by 159 points. He has been granted a waiver by NASCAR to qualify for the Playoffs should he win a race and generate enough points to make the top-16 cutline.
This Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will not only mark Kenseth’s 677th start in NASCAR’s premier series. It will also mark his 20th start at the famed racetrack, a venue where he has achieved 12 top-10 finishes, a best result of second in 2003, 2006 and 2016, 55 laps led and an average result of 12.68 in his previous 19 starts. He currently holds the most top-five finishes at Indy among active drivers, (nine). He is also ranked third among most starts by active Cup drivers behind Kurt Busch and Harvick.
Catch Kenseth’s milestone start in the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at Indianapolis on July 5 at 4 p.m. ET on NBC.