Back in 1998, two drivers embarked on their first full season of NASCAR Busch (now-Nationwide) Series competition. Both had made several starts in the series throughout the previous two seasons. In the years since, their careers have taken practically the same path, with just a few variances along the way. But despite almost identical paths, the views along the way have been somewhat different. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m talking about Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After a stint racing late models, both Earnhardt and Kenseth made their ways to NASCAR’s second-tier series on a full-time basis in 1998. Both drivers won races, but it was Earnhardt who seemed to be closer to the top of the world back then. After all, he was the series champion in both of those years of full-time competition at the Busch level before he and Kenseth, both, made the jump to full-time Winston (now-Sprint) Cup competition in 2000.
That’s where the gradual career shifts began. Both Earnhardt and Kenseth began winning races soon after the full-time move to Cup, but it was Kenseth who was taking the big prizes. Even though Earnhardt won two points-paying races in his rookie season and became the first rookie to win The Winston (what eventually became the the Sprint All-Star Race), it was Kenseth who was crowned the circuit’s top rookie at the end of the year. Fast forward just a few years and Kenseth was celebrating being crowned the Winston Cup champion in 2003.
*** Insert a little factoid, here — Kenseth was the last Winston Cup champion before the series was renamed the Nextel Cup Series, later to become the Sprint Cup Series. ***
As for Earnhardt — he’s still trying for that first championship.
That’s not to say that Earnhardt’s career’s been on a downhill slide since the move up to Cup. Like I mentioned before, he won two points races his rookie season and throughout his Cup career, Earnhardt’s visited victory lane some 19 times. There have been a lot of drivers over the years who would have killed to have the career Earnhardt has had. Maybe since we’re talking NASCAR, here, I should say that those drivers would’ve “wrecked their mama” to have Earnhardt’s career. But as the son of one of only two seven-time Winston Cup champions, Earnhardt has been up against much higher expectations. In his defense in that regard, he’s done much better than the other son of that other seven-time champion (In case you didn’t figure it out, that other son of the other seven-time champion would be Kyle Petty).
Back to Earnhardt and Kenseth. Prior to 2013, Kenseth wasn’t setting the world on fire as far as race wins go. He was the picture of consistency, though, winning a race here and a race there, usually running well on a regular basis, just not driving into victory lane all that much.
But in the last few years, pulling into victory lane a time or two every year is more than Earnhardt can honestly say he’s done. Since 2007, Earnhardt’s won a grand total of two Sprint Cup races, one in 2008 and another four years later in 2012. And both of those wins came at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich. When you get right down to it, Earnhardt hasn’t won anywhere other than Michigan since 2006, and it’s not like he’s winning at Michigan often.
In contrast, while not winning a lot (prior to the current season), Kenseth has at least been winning enough to make at least one trip to victory lane most seasons. He turned up the burner some the last couple of years, winning three times in both 2011 and 2012.
Now, here we are at 2013. Earnhardt’s continuing the struggles of the past few years — several years, actually. He has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup the last two consecutive seasons, but he’s been in the Chase basement both of those years. In all fairness, he did miss multiple Chase races last year while recovering from a concussion, but he’s back in that familiar Chase basement again this year, running all the races.
And then there’s Kenseth. Mr. Consistency has become Mr. Victory Lane. In his first year at Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has driven into victory lane seven times, so far this year, more than any other driver on the circuit, not to mention, he’s in position to possibly claim his second Cup.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt got out of the chute in spectacular fashion all those years ago, but before getting to the top of the mountain, he seems he slid back down the hill. Kenseth, though, is relishing the view at the top.
Both drivers took, seemingly, identical paths to the present, but the view sure has been different.
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But before you do that, enjoy this Earnhardt/Kenseth gallery of recent photos (photos courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR).