Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth Friends From the Start

Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt Jr: "I was nervous coming up in the ranks, but Matt engaged me and we quickly became friends through conversations with him."

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth's NASCAR careers parallel each other. Both went full-time in 1998 and became good friends right from the start.

Now, after 20 seasons of racing together, the two might be making their last starts in the Monster Energy Cup Series on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Earnhardt announced in April that 2017 would be his final full season in NASCAR - will run some XFINITY races next year - and Kenseth recently said that he is not committing to anything for 2018.

"It’s going to make Homestead even more emotional because we came in together," Earnhardt said.

They got to know each other while battling for the XFINITY (then Busch) Series championship in 1998 and 1999, with Earnhardt taking the title both seasons.

"Matt engaged me early in our careers in the XFINITY Series and I was really shy, didn’t have an understanding of how to interact with my peers and competitors that well," Earnhardt said. "I was just trying to do well. I was nervous coming up in the ranks, but Matt engaged me and we quickly became friends through conversations with him."

ESPNEarnhardt and Kenseth moved up to the Cup Series full-time in 2000 and both were featured on the cover of ESPN's magazine previewing the season. Earnhardt vividly remembers the day of the photo shoot that left Kenseth upset, something they still talk about. In fact, Earnhardt tweeted a photo of the magazine earlier this season to remind Kenseth of that day.

"They had me up front and they kind of had him behind me," Earnhardt said. "The image was to express that there is all this hoopla about me coming in and there is all this attention on me, but you better watch this guy Matt. That was the image they were trying to express, this guy is one you need to keep your eye on and he's lurking over my shoulder.

"Matt was frustrated because the photographer kept sliding him a little further and a little further behind me. He kept getting more and more angry, and he is whispering in my ear how ticked off he was at this photographer. He was like, 'They can’t even freaking see me!' And I’m like, 'Matt, the story really ... the image is to show you as the real threat. People are talking about me and they should be talking about you.' "

Seven races into his rookie season, Earnhardt scored his first Cup Series win, at Texas Motor Speedway. Five races later, Kenseth went to Victory Lane for the first time, in the Coca-Cola 600, en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors. This weekend, Earnhardt and Kenseth will be taken back to their rookie seasons as they will each drive cars carrying paint schemes that resemble the cars they raced in their first year together in the Cup Series.

Earnhardt and Kenseth have accomplished a lot during their careers, each winning the Daytona 500 twice. Earnhardt has 26 career Cup Series wins and two XFINITY Series championships. Kenseth captured the 2003 Cup Series championship and has 39 wins, with the latest coming last weekend at Phoenix Raceway. While Earnhardt and Kenseth have had some on-track altercations throughout the years, they quickly work it out to put it in the rear-view mirror.

"Matt and I have raced hard," Earnhardt said. "We've gotten out of our cars and said, 'What the hell?' to each other several times, but we stay friends."

Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.Over the course of their careers, Earnhardt and Kenseth were neighbors in the motorhome lot at tracks across the country. One of the toughest spans for Kenseth was when Earnhardt was sidelined for 18 races in 2016 while recovering from a concussion.

"When he was out, that spot was always empty and it bothered me," Kenseth said. "Even though until he met Amy, for about 15 years he never came out of that motorhome except to practice. Now, he actually comes outside and hangs out."

Off the track, Earnhardt and Kenseth like to go cycling. Both will also welcome new additions to their families. Earnhardt and his wife, Amy, are expecting their first child (a baby girl) next year. Kenseth and his wife, Katie, are expecting their fourth child.

"It’s been a great friendship. Even today, he rides and I ride," Earnhardt said. "We cycle together a lot on Fridays and he jokes all the time. When we found out the news about Amy’s pregnancy, he joked that he was angry he didn’t get a text from me before he read about it on social media. So that's the kind of friend he is. He expects to be one of those guys that you text when you have that kind of news and I love that about Matt. I love that he thinks that's our friendship that we have because that will be with us long after we're done driving.

"Matt was such a pleasure to race with, to know and be friends with. I know he's going to be hard to find once he's out of the racecar, but I hope we can spend time together and we will definitely remain friends."

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