The Race car fan grew wide-eyed when he saw the two Winston Cup drivers walk into Redbone Alley, a Florence, S.C., restaurant, in mid-march. as Matt Kenseth and Jeff Green waited to be seated, the fan, who was wearing a hat with the DeWalt team logo, strolled over to the drivers, who had competed in that afternoon's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington. He asked for an autograph from Green, a back-of-the-pack racer only the most devout NASCAR fans would pick out of a crowd. As Green happily obliged, the fan turned his attention to Kenseth, whose sponsor is DeWalt, and...nothing, not even the faintest flicker of recognition.
"What's up?" an amused Kenseth asked as the fan continued to eyeball him.
"I can't believe I just got Jeff Green's autograph," he replied. "This is my lucky day."
Kenseth had an urge to tell the man his deal—that he was the driver of the DeWalt car, that he had finished eighth that day. Instead Kenseth, The Winston Cup Driver Nobody Knows, let the moment pass. "I loved it," says Kenseth, laughing at the memory. "I love not being recognized."
His days of anonymity, however, are numbered. In a Winston Cup season in which 12 drivers have won the first 15 races, Kenseth has built a cushy lead atop the points standings because he's been the most consistently good racer. Following his fourth-place finish in the Sirius 400 in Michigan on Sunday, the 31-year-old Midwesterner had seven top five finishes, 13 top 10 finishes and a 185-point lead over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. He will be tough to pass: Since 1975, only one driver ( Bobby Allison in '81) has held a lead of at least 180 points after 15 races and squandered it.
Though he won a Winston Cup-best five races in 2002, Kenseth wound up eighth in the standings, thanks to 11 finishes of 30th or lower. This year he has only one victory—at Las Vegas in early March—but no finishes worse than 22nd; by contrast, his closest competitors, Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, have finished out of the top 30 three times and twice, respectively. "In terms of staying out of trouble, there's no driver in the world who is closer to David Pearson than Matt," says veteran Jimmy Spencer, referring to the NASCAR legend who won 105 races and three points titles from 1960 through '86. "He knows his car's limitations, and he doesn't break equipment."
With the advent of deep-pocketed racing teams and their dozens of specialists, most of today's young drivers don't take the time to learn how things work under the hood. Kenseth, though, is a throwback to the days when drivers operated on shoestring budgets and tinkered with their engines in the backyard, not in some Garage Mahal. He has been a devoted gearhead ever since he took apart a lawn mower engine when he was nine. That technical acumen also makes him one of the circuit's best drivers at working with a crew chief to identify problems in the car's setup. Whereas drivers are frequently vague in the analysis of their car's problems—it's running loose, it's running tight—Kenseth will suggest the precise fix that needs to be made. "When Matt tells us to make a change, I'd say he's right 96 percent of the time," says Mike Calinoff, Kenseth's spotter. "Drivers often give suggestions, but not like Matt's."
Kenseth's other great strength is his exceptional track awareness. At the Food City 500 in Bristol in late March, for example, he was hurtling down the backstretch at 135 mph in heavy traffic when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed an error on the scoreboard. "I'm in fourth, not fifth," Kenseth told Calinoff over the radio. Calinoff checked it out and, to his amazement, his driver was right.
Kenseth developed his racing instincts on the tracks of Wisconsin, whose location in the U.S. (read: outside the South) belies its rich racing history. Indeed, no state north of the Mason-Dixon line has played a bigger role in NASCAR's growth from a regional sport to a national, multibillion-dollar colossus. Long before Roy Kenseth purchased a 1983 Camaro on a whim for his 13-year-old son, Matt, with the promise that the boy could race it after he turned 16, tracks across the Badger State were developing such future standouts as Dave Marcis, Dick Trickle and the best of them all, the late Alan Kulwicki, who only 4� months before dying in a 1993 plane crash became the first Yankee in 43 years to win a NASCAR tide.
From the start of his racing career Kenseth appeared destined for success. In 1991, at 19, he became the youngest winner in the history of the ARTGO Challenge Series race in LaCrosse, Wis. One of his rivals was Robbie Reiser, who competed against Kenseth five nights a week. "We weren't the best of friends," says Reiser, 38, who's now Kenseth's crew chief, "but even then Matt never made mistakes."