It's a changing NASCAR

By Anthony Rhoads

The sounds of Metallica's ?Enter Sandman' wafted through the air as Matt Kenseth and crew celebrated their NASCAR Winston Cup points championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago.

It's definitely not your father's NASCAR anymore as Kenseth is the latest ?young gun' to win a championship in stock-car racing's most elite division.

The 31-year old from Cambridge, Wis. began racing when he was 16 and by his late teens became the youngest driver to win in the Re/Max Challenge Series.

In 1994, he captured a track championship at Madison International Speedway and won consecutive track titles at Wisconsin International Speedway in 1994-95.

He moved up to the American Speed Association where he caught the attention of Robbie Reiser, who offered him a ride in the NASCAR Busch Series.

In 2000, with Reiser as his crew chief, Kenseth got his chance to race in Winston Cup for car owner Jack Roush.

That year, Kenseth won the Coca-Cola 600 and racked up 11 top-10s on his way to beating out Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the rookie of the year award.

Kenseth experienced a ?sophomore slump' in 2001 with just three top-fives but he came back at full force in 2002.

He led the Winston Cup series with five wins in 2002 and was eighth in the final points standings.

While he was Winton Cup's winningest driver in 2002, the championship season of 2003 was a different story.

In 2003, he won the Winston Cup championship not out of dominance but because of consistency. He won just one race but he had 25 top 10s and 11 top fives while only posting just one DNF.

In contrast, Ryan Newman led the Winston Cup with eight wins this year but racked up seven DNFs.

Kenseth proved this year that you don't have to win every time you go out on the racetrack to win a championship but you have to race consistently week in and week out.

Kenseth has also proved that nice guys indeed can finish first. Kenseth's temper has flared on occasion but for the most part, he seems like a genuinely nice guys.

Kudos to the ASA: The American Speed Association is continuing its long tradition of being a proving ground for up-and-coming race car drivers. The Midwest-based organization has been churning our future racing superstars for more than 30 yards and Kenseth is just one more driver in the succession of former ASA drivers who found success in Winston Cup.

Some other current and former Winston Cup drivers who came up through the ASA include Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Johnny Benson, Rusty Wallace and Kenny Wallace.

The ASA has also been a place where some local drivers have gotten into national racing.

Jonesboro native Joey Clanton won the ASA rookie title in 2000 and won the ASA points championship in 2002 before racing a partial NASCAR Busch Series schedule in 2003.

Reed Sorenson, a Woodward Academy student, won the ASA rookie of the year award this season and has signed a developmental deal with legendary car owner Chip Ganassi.

Anthony Rhoads is a sports writer for The Daily and his column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at arhoads@news-daily.com or sports@news-daily.com.