By 1997 Reiser had given up driving and had bought a Busch Series team. Eight races into that season, after his driver, Tim Bender, injured his back in an accident, Reiser put in a call to Kenseth, who was driving in the ASA Series, and asked him to join his team. Kenseth jumped at the chance and finished out the season with seven top 10 finishes in 21 starts. At season's end, however, Reiser lost his sponsor, which forced him to borrow more than $800,000 to keep the team running. Sitting in the back of Roy Kenseth's van on their way to Daytona for the first Busch race of the '98 season, Reiser told Kenseth, "You should start looking for another ride. I'm about out of money."
"I'm not giving up," replied Kenseth. "If we run strong, we'll get a sponsor."
After Kenseth finished sixth at Daytona, Reiser figured he had enough money for one or two more races. Then he hit the jackpot the following week when, at Rockingham, Kenseth passed Tony Stewart on the last lap for his first Busch Series win. Reiser picked up Lycos as a backer, and the team finished second in the points race behind Earnhardt. The next year Roush Racing signed Kenseth with the promise of a full-time Winston Cup ride in 2000. "From where Robbie and I started to where we are now is mind-blowing," says Kenseth, "but we got here because we're so serious about our jobs."
Indeed, Kenseth is as intense as any driver in NASCAR. Walking around the garage, he wears the pained expression of a man who just had a root canal. Kenseth's strictly business demeanor has fueled the perception that he lacks personality. Those close to him, however, insist that he has life-of-the-party potential. "I read stories that say Matt is quiet and distant, but that's not the Matt I know," says his wife, Katie.
Kenseth is well-known among friends as a practical joker. (If you're at a party with Kenseth, don't stand near the pool.) To get an idea of how his sense of humor works, consider this story involving Earnhardt. A few years ago Junior, whose close friendship with Kenseth dates to 1998, when they were running against each other in the Busch Series, innocently remarked to Kenseth that Katie was homely looking. "Where I come from," says Junior, "saying someone is homely is a compliment." When Kenseth playfully passed along the remark to Katie, she was far from flattered. For several months, whenever Katie saw Junior, she'd flash him the evil eye. Instead of helping his pal out of the doghouse by explaining to Katie what Junior meant, Kenseth watched his friend squirm every time Junior and Katie were in the same room. "Matt got me good," says Earnhardt.
Kenseth has been getting Earnhardt pretty good at the track as well. Since breaking into Winston Cup together in 2000, Kenseth has finished higher in the standings than the more celebrated Earnhardt twice in three seasons. On Sunday, Kenseth nearly ran his pal into the wall on a last-lap pass, which prompted a vow of payback. ("Every time we're racing, he runs me into the wall," Earnhardt said. "We're buddies, so hopefully he won't get mad when I plant him.") The foundation, it appears, has been laid for NASCAR's next big rivalry.
Five days before the Michigan race, Kenseth had been mulling that rivalry from the back seat of Reiser's Lincoln Aviator as it pulled up to a stoplight on Concord Boulevard just outside Charlotte. As another car stopped next to Reiser's, Kenseth said, "We gotta take him! We gotta!" Reiser, a gleam of mischief in his eyes, didn't need to be told again. When the light flipped green, he hit the gas and dusted the other car. Kenseth and Reiser laughed loudly as they zoomed away, another small victory for NASCAR's most dominant team in 2003.