Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth finished their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series careers in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead. Kenseth quietly finished 8th while Dale Jr. finished three laps down in 25th.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth started their NASCAR careers together and most likely ended their careers together in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida with respectable finishes and admiration by his fellow competitors.
The face of NASCAR for over a decade, Dale Jr. received huge fanfare during pre-race, including a warm standing ovation at the driver’s meeting and receiving high-fives from every NASCAR crew member, reminiscent to his father’s 1998 Daytona 500 victory where he was greeted by everyone after finally winning “The Great American Race.”
Dale Jr. kept his car stabled for most of the race, but a series of long green flag runs trapped him one lap down and wasn’t able to get a free pass as the race was slowed down 5 times for 26 laps. Late in the race, Dale Jr. was running in the top-15 until he hit the outside wall after cutting down a tire, ultimately settling for 25th, three laps behind race winner and champion Martin Truex, Jr.
After the race, he “high-fived” Truex by making contact on the championship winning car. Then he was hugged by car owner Rick Hendrick, whom allowed Dale Jr. to keep his “Budweiser” red No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet. Dale Jr. then gave his throwback helmet—inspired by his Cup debut at Charlotte May 30, 1999—to Hendrick after driving his car for 10 seasons. He later celebrated with some Budweisers (Dale Jr.’s primary sponsor from 1999-2007) and reflected on his career.
“It was a fun night. I got in the fence late. We were running pretty decent. We had a lot of problems in the car, but (crew chief) Greg Ives made some great adjustments and got the car running pretty good and ride up on the fence once the sunset went down, I knew our was going to come in. So that was pretty fun,” Dale Jr. said “I hated hitting the wall because we would’ve finished a little bit better. We lost about 10 spots getting that flat.
“Hope all the fans enjoyed this season. I know it wasn’t everything we wanted on the race track, but we sure had fun and I’m going to miss everybody.”
Dale Jr. added he kept his emotions in check until hugging Hendrick.
“I’m not sure what the feeling is (about running his final race). I didn’t cry until I was hugging Rick’s neck. Man, he’s been like a father to me with the things he’s done for me personally, and in personal stuff. He’s really helped me more than anybody will ever know. And he’s done that for a lot of people and so I will miss trying to make him proud,” Dale Jr. said. “I know I will still be able to do things that will make him proud because he’s like a daddy. I’ll miss driving his cars and trying to make him proud on the race track. It’s time for somebody else to get in this car. It’s a great opportunity for Alex (Bowman) and I’m excited to see what he can do.”
Dale Jr.’s resume includes two Xfinity Series titles (1998 and 1999), two Daytona 500 victories (2004 and 2014), multiple Xfinity Series titles as a car owner with Truex (2004-05), Chase Elliott (2014) and William Byron (2017) and perhaps his lasting legacy, carrying the sport’s popularity for over a decade.
Known for his dry sense of humor and driving consistency, Kenseth lived up to his style. He ran quietly in top-10 all day and cracked the top-5 on multiple occasions. Kenseth brought his throwback No. 20 DeWalt Toyota home in eighth, his 18th top-10 of the season.
During the closing laps, Kenseth said he was more concerned on passing Brad Keselowski instead of racing for the last time at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I didn’t think about much the last 20 laps except for trying to get by Brad to be honest totally honest with you. Obviously last week was a magical week or race – to win that race and then this week has been really fun,” Kenseth said. “The pre-race stuff was really fun. I was glad Katie (Kenseth’s wife) was able to get down here and all and having the kids here, my dad, my sister and everybody. It was really fun obviously what DeWalt did with this paint job and Habitat for Humanity, but doing my rookie paint job was cool as well. So it was a really cool day, but once you start the engine, really didn’t think about anything to be honest with you, except for trying to go out and perform the best you can and trying to win that race.”
Kenseth said it’s the fans judgement on what his lasting legacy will be after going away next season.
“Some people are going to like you, some people aren’t. Some people are going to respect you, some people won’t. So I mean, whatever people think, they think. I did the best I could every week,” Kenseth added. “Didn’t always do the right thing, that’s for sure, but raced as hard as I could and at the time I always felt like I was trying to do the right thing and gave it my all every time I went to the race track, so that’s all I could do.”
Kenseth was asked by NBC Sports pit reporter Kelli Stavast on what he’ll miss about the sport. Kenseth responded he’ll miss the fans, citing his win at Phoenix Nov. 12 as his reason why he’ll miss it.
“Man, I don’t know. I guess the fans,” Kenseth said. “You know, you hear them yelling right now and last week was really, really neat when I was doing that backwards victory lap, the Polish victory lap like (Alan) Kulwicki did at Phoenix ironically. You could hear the fans screaming through the window and just all the respect that they’ve shown me the last couple weeks has been really, really humbling, so probably, I’ll miss that the most.”
Kenseth and Dale Jr. began their NASCAR careers in the Busch Grand National Series (now known as Xfinity Series) with one start each in 1996 before arriving on the scene a season later. Dale Jr. won back-to-back titles in 1998 and 1999 while Kenseth finished second and third respectively before being called up to run in the premiere series full-time in 2000.
Despite Dale Jr. winning Texas and the spring race at Richmond to Kenseth’s lone win at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, it was Kenseth who outperformed his friend for most of the season and was named Rookie of the Year.
The top two finishers in that rookie class won a combined 65 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins, four Daytona 500 victories and two All-Star Race wins (2000 for Dale Jr. and 2004 for Kenseth).
Kenseth will go down in history as the last Winston Cup champion in 2003, three years after winning Rookie of the Year. After 650 starts, Kenseth scored 39 wins, 20 poles, 327 top-10 finishes and only failed to score more than 10 top-10s in a season once.
In 631 starts, Dale Jr. earned 26 wins, 15 poles, 260 top-10 finishes and for 14 consecutive seasons, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. Adding to his legacy was his dominance at the restrictor plate tracks including 17 wins at Daytona and the only driver to win four consecutive races at Talladega.
The 60th Daytona 500 Feb. 18, 2018 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida will be a different landscape as two friends will be absent on the starting grid, but their legacies left a remarkable impact in the sport’s growth for the last two decades.