Countdown To New York: The Rookie

The so-called experts were heard far and wide before the 2000 Winston Cup season began… “Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be the Rookie of the Year.”

Well, we didn’t say that… and it certainly never happened.

Instead, Matt Kenseth – hiding in the shadows of those crowning Little E before a single race was held – cruised to the rookie title and joined some very elite company.

When the young and energetic Kenseth leaves this sport, he can always look back and see his name alongside other top rookies in the series… Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon.

That fact means a great deal to the 28 year-old Wisconsin native who is already a star in the Roush Racing stables.

“We had a great season,” Kenseth says. “It's a real honor to be on top of this rookie class. There were a lot of really talented rookie drivers this year, with bright futures in front of them. I owe this to the entire team. We had ups and downs like we expected from our rookie season, but we also showed a good amount of consistency, and that's what it takes to win the Rookie of the Year.”

Those shouting Earnhardt Jr.’s name loud and clear were pounding their chests early in the season as the son of a seven-time champion won at Texas, Richmond and in The Winston all-star race in Charlotte.

But eight days after Earnhardt Jr. won The Winston, Kenseth picked up his first Winston Cup victory in NASCAR’s longest race - the Coca-Cola 600. From then on, Kenseth maintained all the consistency he needed to beat Earnhardt Jr. by a 316-278 margin in the final rookie standings.

Aside from Earnhardt Jr. winning one more points race than he did, Kenseth was the top-finishing rookie in half - 17 of 34 - of the season’s races.

“It's a real honor to win this award,” Kenseth says. “To come out on top of this great group of rookies is really special. Dale Jr. is a great driver who beat us in Busch the past two years, and I knew he'd be tough again this year. He had some bad luck during the middle part of the season that helped us get ahead. You're going to see him win many more races and championships in the future.

“Dave Blaney came on strong at the end of the year and the rest of the guys - Stacy Compton, Mike Bliss, Scott Pruett - all have bright careers ahead of them. To finish ahead of that caliber of talent says a lot about the commitment and talent of this race team.”

While team owner Jack Roush finally got a championship in NASCAR from Greg Biffle in the truck series, the man with the hat also had great pleasure watching Kenseth and crew chief Robbie Reiser come to form.

In fact, as Roush points out, if it wasn’t for Mark Martin’s high praise for the youngster, he might have overlooked the talent of Kenseth and never signed him.

“Mark had a great deal of confidence in Matt,” Roush explains. “Three years ago, I didn't even know who Matt Kenseth was. With the help of Robbie Reiser coming through the Busch Series, Matt prepared himself for Winston Cup. Mark saw potential in Matt and we're glad we were able to sign him and help him along the way. I congratulate that team on a job well done. It was a total team effort and I'm proud of them for figuring out how best to run their team… and for winning the Rookie-of-the-Year."

Though thrilled with the award, Kenseth said he’d trade it for a chance to have been in victory lane again.

“I'd trade it for another win for sure,” Kenseth says. “Racing for the rookie title is really cool, and it is the rookie-of-the-year championship, but it's different. You could finish 20th and be the top-finishing rookie, so that means there were 19 other cars that whooped on us that day, so it's a little bit different.

“When you win a points championship like Bobby Labonte did, you know you beat all the guys consistently every week to win that championship, so I would definitely trade it for a win.”

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