Matt Kenseth returned to his home track Tuesday and came out a winner. Things were hectic for Kenseth at Madison International Speedway (MIS) prior to race time, meeting with the media and his fans before race time. Bringing back his old number eight, Kenseth said, “I really wanted to bring the eight back one more time. It’s been twenty years. (Uncle) Steve was 98, Dad was 88, so I was just eight. The only times I change was when I drove for Robbie (Reiser) and they used the digits 17 (equals eight). Some people won’t get it, but those who’ve been coming here a long time will remember.”
Kenseth will return in the same Pathfinder house car next month for the Slinger Nationals. “The Nationals have always been fun,” Kenseth began, adding, “I remember watching them, Bobby Allison, Neil Bonnett, Dale Earnhardt, Alan Kulwicki, Bobby Dotter. It was always great.” Meeting with his fan club from all over the country, Kenseth stated, “I can never figure out why. It’s always thrilling to see how many show up.” Former race stars were also here. Butch Miller was working on Kenseth’s crew and Jason Schuler is one of the Pathfinder builders. Just feet away Kelly Bires was working on Ross Kenseth’s mount.
Qualifying began Tuesday afternoon under the hot sun, with Travis Sauter topping the field of super late models. The super trucks were headed by Chester Ace, but Tory Bagley and Jerry Wood never got on the track. The previous night’s horrendous storm destroyed Wood’s cattle building, and much work had to be done before coming to Madison. Thus the pair of trucks did not arrive in time, and later were allowed to get a few practice laps before race time. With more weather due to arrive in a few hours, it was decided to forgo all heat races and reduce the truck feature by five laps. A band rocked the crowd during the autograph session on the frontstretch, and people had time for a leisurely meal while Kenseth’s sold-out fan session was being held.
Race time arrived with Kyle Shear winning the super late model dash. Shear can only race a few times a year due to his job on a NASCAR team in North Carolina, and made the long trip back to Wisconsin for this event. Another long-distance traveler is Dalton Zehr, who lives in Florida, races with a team from Ohio, and summers in Wisconsin.
The truck feature began with Johnny Beale and Camden Murphy ahead of Kurt Kleven, Blake Brown, Kevin Knuese and quick qualifier Ace. The 25-lap contest went from the green flag to the checkers, with Murphy leading until Ace roared past with eight laps remaining. Murphy was stuck on the outer groove and got passed by Brown and Kneuse at the end. Ace notched his second win in this machine, stating, “We were feeling pretty good tonight. We got into race mode when they said we’re up soon. I knew this truck was good.” Kleven completed the top five, with Bagley and Wood following.
The super late model contest took center stage, the 100-lap contest a four-tire race with one break at a random lap late in the race. The invert placed Jeff Storm and Zehr in the front row, followed by Shear, Kenseth, Bobby Wilberg, Bobby Kendall, Dave Feiler and Sauter. Zehr had the advantage at the green flag, but Storm regained the lead until Kenseth got past on lap tweve. Wilberg took the point three laps later, and the race roared along. Shear was in third place until mechanical woes struck after two dozen orbits, pitting and returning as the others roared around the half-mile. The first caution came when Jeremy Miller’s mount climbed over that of Gary Lamonte just after thirty circuits. The cone was set on the track and everyone chose their lanes for the restart. All but Kendall, who was pushed to the pits with rear end problems.
Wilberg led the way past two more restarts for minor spins, with the competition break taken at that point with 36 laps remaining. Wilberg was followed by Sauter, Zehr, Kenseth and Storm as the crews were allowed ten minutes to tweak their machines. Wilberg resumed the point until Sauter drove past just before eighty laps were scored. Sauter could almost taste victory with nine laps remaining when a cluster of cars brought out the next yellow banner. Sauter chose the inside and Wilberg outside him at the restart, with Kenseth, Zehr, Chris Wimmer and Nathan Haseleu following. Coming for the green flag Wilberg turned too far left towards Sauter down and spun. Forcing the yellow, Wilberg was sent to the rear of the field, the unhappy driver pitting and returning for the next green flag.
Sauter now found Kenseth outside him at the restart, with Zehr, Wimmer, Haseleu and Johnson next. The next time around Kenseth had the point, but Sauter stayed with him as the pair dueled for dominance. Haseleu’s car suddenly retired with three laps remaining, leaving fifteen of the 22 starters still running. Sauter’s car showed sparks in the corners as his tire began going down in the final laps, but hung on for runner-up as Kenseth’s fans cheered his win. Zehr and Johnson followed, with Wimmer’s twentieth-place start resulting in a top five finish. The top three cars parked on the frontstretch and Kenseth walked over to shake Sauter’s hand before interviews.
Kenseth began, “It wasn’t the prettiest win. Travis (Sauter) had a flat at the end. I get asked probably fifty to a hundred times a day when we’re going to win,” but this one won’t count towards the NASCAR Cup chase. Sauter stated, “I think we had him beat for sure. It was flat on the last restart. I hope the fans come back and see more of this on Friday nights.” Zehr claimed, “We were in excellent company,” adding, “For my first time here, it was an awesome finish. We planned on running this race last week Tuesday. That was definitely a learning experience, well worth the trip.”
We applaud MIS management for their decision to speed up the program, for a tremendous lightning show accompanied us on the way home before the pounding rain began. As we walked out the gate, a cart stopped to ask if we wanted a ride to our car. We didn’t, but many others did, and we loved the extra effort by the track. Now that this arena has gone back to their Friday night slot, you can be sure the fans can enjoy even more.
(Editors Note: Fay Hendricks is a long-time racing columnist and periodically will share her racing stories on Speed 51.) Photo Credit: Fay Hendricks.