NASCAR Hall of Fame: Matt Kenseth reflects on career during induction

AP photo by Nell Redmond / Former Cup Series driver Matt Kenseth arrives Friday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., where he was inducted as part of the class of 2023.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The climb complete more than two years after his final lap in a NASCAR race, Matt Kenseth was able to enjoy the view from the top Friday.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner finally reached the top rung of his career as he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The 50-year-old Kenseth — who drove 18 full seasons in the top-tier Cup Series before retiring in late 2020 with 39 victories and 20 pole positions to his credit — highlighted a 2023 class in which he was joined by longtime driver Hershel McGriff and crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine.

Referred to by many as "Matt the Brat" when he first broke into racing, Kenseth ranks 21st on the career wins list in the Cup Series. His two decades in NASCAR include multiple victories in crown jewel races — the Daytona 500 in 2009 and 2012, the Coca-Cola 600 in 2000, the Southern 500 in 2013 and the All-Star Race in 2004.

"I always looked at my career as a ladder — you start at the bottom; you hope to climb your way to the top," the Wisconsin native said in his acceptance speech. "My ladder has hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of rungs on it, and without any of them — bottom, middle, top, wherever you fit — I wouldn't standing be here without any of you. So really, from the bottom of my heart, thank you all."

His wife Katie and father Roy inducted him.

"The internal drive is what put Matt on this stage tonight," Katie Kenseth said.

Kenseth won the 2003 Cup Series championship with a dominating season in which he led the points standings for the final 32 weeks. That was the last year before NASCAR switched to a playoff format, and Kenseth made the postseason field in 13 of 14 years and finished runner-up twice. He also won 29 races on the second-tier Xfinity Series.

Kenseth talked about learning to love racing by watching his family compete at Jefferson Speedway as he grew up and begging his father to take him to Uncle Gary's house so he could help him work on his cars.

"Racing truly is a family sport," said Kenseth, who drove for car owners Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs and Chip Ganassi during his Cup Series career.

Kenseth earned the respect of his contemporaries, including Jimmie Johnson, whose last full NASCAR season was in 2020, and Kevin Harvick, who is retiring after the 2023 season.

Johnson, whose seven Cup Series championships tied the record held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, said some of his fiercest battles on the track have been with Kenseth.

"There was always just a deep level of trust that we're going to give 100%, not step over the line, not clean each other out," Johnson said. "As a competitor, he was one of the few that I knew we'd race hard but we wouldn't cross the line."

Johnson, a fitness enthusiast, said the two forged a friendship away from the track riding bikes.

"I absolutely call him a friend," Johnson said. "His family, his kids are close to my kids, our wives are close, like we've really become friends, and I am so thankful for it."

Harvick also described Kenseth as a fair driver, but added that he is "that sneaky guy that would dump you."

"If you did him wrong, he was going to give back exactly what he got," Harvick said. "As you look back at Matt, he was one of the rare few that would always just figure it out and find his way to the front by the time that the race was over. He's a great hardcore, good racer, and I always respected him."

Shelmerdine was the crew chief and front tire changer for four of Earnhardt's seven championships. Only two chiefs have more premier series titles than Shelmerdine: class of 2012 inductee Dale Inman with eight and Chad Knaus, who will be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration in 2024, with seven — all with Johnson.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. inducted Shelmerdine, saying "he put my dad on the path to greatness."

Shelmerdine reflected the credit back to the man behind the wheel.

"What makes a great crew chief? It's simple: a great driver," Shelmerdine said. "What else can we say about him? When we started together, Dale and I just kind of clicked intuitively."

McGriff, who turned 95 in December, competed on race tracks for 68 years.

From 1954 until 2018, he participated in 271 races in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West (now ARCA Menards West Series), winning 34 races and posting 100 top-five finishes. He captured the region series championship in 1986 at 58 years old and finished second in points in 1985 and 1987.

McGriff spoke at length about his career path, saying he started driving at age 7 — with that first ride a cart pulled by a goat that he bought from an uncle "for $4." He said he graduated to farm equipment in a summer job at 10, delivered groceries on a scooter with a sidecar at 11, and the following year drove the church bus to get other kids to Sunday school.

"I took my time taking them home because I didn't want to attend church afterwards," McGriff joked, "because my dad was the preacher. I didn't want to listen to him."

McGriff, who said he bought his first car when he was in the eighth grade — "a 1930 Model A that cost me $110" — also joked that he still plans to write a book.

"I have had a happy life, and this induction is just icing on the cake," said McGriff, who teared up several times during his speech.

Mike Helton was honored as the Landmark Award winner for outstanding contributions to the sport. Helton was the first person outside the France family to handle NASCAR's day-to-day operations.

Photographer T. Taylor Warren was named the recipient of the 2023 Squier-Hall Award.