Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: Matt Kenseth & NASCAR’s Last Full-Season Championship

In 2022, NASCAR’s championship hunt is underway. The playoff format is unforgiving, and drivers need a little luck and a lot of great finishes to even have a chance at the championship, which all comes down to one race at Phoenix Raceway.

Many long-time fans never exactly warmed to the playoffs, which started in 2004 under a 10-race Chase format and evolved into the current system. Those fans will say the title isn’t worth what it once was because the drivers benefit from an almost total points reset.

Thanks a lot, Matt Kenseth.

Kenseth gets a lot of flack for his 2003 season, the last time the full 36-race schedule determined the championship. Kenseth won by 90 points over Jimmie Johnson, a size-able margin. And worst of all, he did it with just one win. (The horror.)

The Chase/playoff system isn’t his fault, of course. A new series sponsor and fresh TV deals had a lot more to do with it. Kenseth’s just a convenient scapegoat.

That 2003 season is an interesting one. Kenseth had some impressive numbers: one win, 11 top fives, 25 top 10s, 10.4 average finish. That’s a good season if not a great one. The 25 top 10s is one key to Kenseth’s title. There are others; hang on and we’ll get there.

Runner-up Johnson had three wins, 14 top fives and 20 top 10s. At a glance, that’s a bit better than Kenseth on the two biggest fronts.

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But the most eye-popping numbers go to Ryan Newman: eight wins, 17 top fives, 22 top 10s, 11 poles (Kenseth never started on pole that year). Those look like championship numbers. Yet Newman finished sixth, a distant 311 points back.

What does the 2003 season look like for those three drivers: champion Kenseth, runner-up Johnson, and breakout Newman?

February

Kenseth finished 20th in the Daytona 500, coming out 19th in points. The following week at North Carolina Speedway, he finished third, improving his position to sixth. Kenseth led laps in both races, at the time worth five points per race.

Johnson had the best opening two weeks, leading laps and finishing third in Daytona and following up with an eighth at Rockingham Speedway. He finished the month second in points.

Newman finished 43rd in the Daytona 500, crashing out after 56 laps, and 14th at the Rock. He didn’t lead a lap and left February 32nd in the standings.

March

The one win came in week three for Kenseth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, followed up with another top five, a fourth at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He didn’t lead at Atlanta or Darlington Raceway (finished eighth) but continued his top-10 streak through the rest of the month with a runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway and sixth at Texas Motor Speedway. Kenseth led three total races. He finished the month as the point leader, having completed every lap of the season so far.

Johnson had a largely forgettable month, scoring a pair of top 10s with eighth-place runs at Bristol and Texas, barely offsetting finishes of 32nd at Atlanta (engine failure) and 27th at Bristol. His only lead lap finishes came at Vegas and Texas, and he led two races. The month was good enough to end fifth in points.

Newman picked things up in the second month. He led his first laps en route to finishing third at LVMS. Pole No. 1 came at Atlanta, followed up with a top 10. A 14th at Darlington rolled into another pole at Bristol, but only a 22nd-place result. Win No. 1 happened at Texas to close out the month. But Newman finished off the lead lap in three of the first four races, though he led laps in a total of four. He exited the month eighth in points.

April

Kenseth qualified 23rd or worse in all three races. A ninth at Talladega Superspeedway sandwiched Kenseth’s worst result of the season so far, 22nd at Martinsville Speedway, with another ninth at California Speedway. He finished a lap down at Martinsville for the first time in 2003 and led laps at Talladega and Fontana. He would not lose the point lead for the rest of the season.

Johnson led 65 laps at Talladega (finished 15th), scored his only top 10 of the month at Martinsville (ninth), and wrapped up the month 16th at Fontana, finishing on the lead lap each week and entering May fifth in points.

For Newman, April may be the month that ended his title hopes. He failed to finish all three races after a crash, a brake failure and another crash. He did not lead a lap. In fact, Newman completed just 473 of 938 total laps in three races with a best finish of 38th at Martinsville. He plummeted from eighth to 25th in points at month’s end.

May

Between the traditional Mother’s Day off-week and the non-points All-Star event, May had just two points races. Kenseth reeled off yet another strong month, completing every lap while finishing second at Richmond Raceway and runner-up at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600. It became increasingly clear that he was going to be the driver to beat.

Johnson also completed every lap in May, finishing 19th at Richmond before leading 34 laps at Charlotte on the way to winning the Coke 600. He was still fifth in points as the Cup Series rolled into the summer months.

Newman’s April woes extended through Richmond, where he finished 39th, 23 laps down after leading 24 laps earlier in the day. He did finish for the first time since winning at Texas over a month earlier. The Coca-Cola 600 finally provided a bright spot; Newman led 50 laps and finished fifth, ending the month 24th in the standings.

June

The worst thing to be said about Kenseth’s June is that he only led one race and finished outside the top 10 once. Kenseth finished third at Dover Downs International Speedway, seventh at Pocono Raceway and led 10 laps at Michigan International Speedway before finishing the month with a 14th-place at Sonoma Raceway. He again completed every lap.

June was Johnson’s worst month of 2003. After a career-worst 38th-place finish and second DNF of the year at Dover despite leading laps, he won the pole at Pocono and led laps but finished 12th, his top June finish. Finishes of 16th and 17th at Michigan and Sonoma dropped Johnson to seventh in points with two lead-lap finishes that month.

Newman, on the other hand, had a very good month. He won from the pole at Dover, leading the most laps on the way. He followed that up with a fifth at Pocono, also on the lead lap. Michigan was a downer as Newman lost an engine after 36 laps and finished 41st, but he rebounded to another top five at Sonoma, not leading a lap but finishing fifth. Newman gained eight points positions in June, finishing the month in 17th.

July

July was just mediocre for Kenseth. He finished sixth at Daytona and 12th (and a lap down) at Chicagoland Speedway, the only race he didn’t lead that month. He won his first pole of 2003 at New Hampshire International Speedway and finished third, but ended the span 13th at Pocono. But that was the second-worst full month Kenseth had.

Johnson’s July was very good. He completed every lap and led three races. He finished a mid-pack 18th at Daytona and third at Chicago before taking his fifth career victory. That came at New Hampshire. Johnson started on the front row but finished 15th at Pocono to close the month fourth in points.

Newman was 22nd at Daytona and then hit a hot streak. He also completed every lap of the month. He won at Chicago, finished fourth in Loudon and won again at Pocono. He led a total of 184 laps in those three races. After gaining that foothold, Newman climbed to ninth in points, a net gain of 15 positions in eight races.

August

If winning too much is a sin in NASCAR, Kenseth wasn’t doing that, but he continued to school the field as the summer ground on. Once again he never finished off the lead lap, and finished out of the top 10 only once. Kicking off the month, Kenseth came in second at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, leading 10 laps. He coasted along with an eighth at Watkins Glen International, ninth at Michigan and fourth at Bristol, though he didn’t lead any of those races. His worst finish came at Darlington Raceway with a 14th place in the Southern 500 after leading 37 laps.

Johnson finished 18th at Indy but rebounded with a fourth at Watkins Glen. He led a quarter of the race at Michigan but finished a lap down in 27th. Top fives at Bristol (fifth) and Darlington (third) capped off the month with Johnson fourth in the standings.

Newman’s hot streak continued into the dog days. He kicked it off by finishing 11th at his home track in Indy. He finished ninth at Watkins Glen before winning at Michigan, gaining 40 positions over the June race. The month wrapped up with a sixth at Bristol and a pole at Darlington before a 23rd-place finish in the Southern 500 after leading 123 laps. Newman led every race except Watkins Glen and only finished off the lead lap at Darlington. Points position: seventh.

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September

September was just another Kenseth month with one notable exception. He rolled through the second races at Richmond, Loudon and Dover with a string of top 10s (seventh, seventh and ninth). He won the pole in Dover and finished all the laps in those three races. Typical Kenseth fare by that time. Talladega provided a rare DNF thanks to an engine failure 30 laps shy of the finish, scored in 33rd.

Johnson started the month in fine fashion. He completed every lap at Richmond, Loudon and Dover and led 12 on the way to sweeping the season at New Hampshire. He finished 11th at Richmond and eighth at Dover, with the only hiccup a DNF for an engine failure at Talladega just one lap before Kenseth suffered the same fate; he finished 34th. Johnson was still fourth in points.

Newman roared into pumpkin spice season. He led three races, completed every lap and finished no worse than ninth all month long. He won at Richmond, finished ninth from the pole at New Hampshire, won again at Dover and capped it off with a top five at Talladega, finishing fourth. He climbed to fifth in points and left everyone to wonder what might be if not for April and early May.

October

Kenseth started spooky season with back-to back finishes of 36th or worse, tallying that result at Kansas after his Talladega DNF a week prior. He finished eighth in Charlotte, his only top 10 of the month, before finishing 13th and 11th at Martinsville and Atlanta. He still finished on the lead lap in those three races but never led a circuit. Despite his worst month of the year, he not only retained his point lead but extended it by one point between Kansas and Atlanta as second changed hands from Kevin Harvick to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Johnson’s stretch run showed why he’d be so hard to beat under the Chase format in years to come. He tore through October with his worst finish of the month a seventh at Kansas. He finished third at Charlotte, second at Martinsville and third at Atlanta to close the month. Martinsville was the only race he didn’t lead that month and the last he wouldn’t lead in 2003. He closed the month fourth in the standings.

Newman’s roll kept on rolling into October. He started with his eighth win of the year at Kansas with top fives at Charlotte (second) and Martinsville (fifth) next on the menu. He crashed at Atlanta with just five laps to go, winding up 29th.He led everywhere but Martinsville and only finished off the lead lap after the Atlanta crash. But that crash was costly; it saw Newman fall to sixth in the standings with just three races to go.

November

With the finish line in sight, Kenseth did what he’d done all year, finishing sixth and fourth at Phoenix and the Rock on the lead lap bit races. Oh, and he clinched the championship at Rockingham, too. He ended the year on a decidedly down note, finishing dead last in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, blowing his engine on lap 28 and having to wait out the rest of the race before officially beginning his offseason with his first career — and the last Winston Cup — title.

Johnson’s late-season tear continued. He finished runner up at both Phoenix and Rockingham and capped the year off third at Homestead. In the final three races, he climbed from fourth to second in points and closed Kenseth’s final lead from 258 points over second to 90.

Newman’s season finished much like Kenseth’s. He won the poles for both Phoenix and Rockingham and finished third and fifth in those races. But Homestead was a low note, with a crash relegating Newman to 37th place.

When you look at the season as a whole, you can argue a lot of things: Kenseth’s dominance was boring, Newman’s eight wins were pretty spectacular, Johnson’s stretch run was a foreshadowing of a whole lot of years.

What can’t be convincingly said? That Kenseth didn’t deserve the title. Newman and Johnson had more wins, more top fives, but they also had more DNFs and finished off the lead lap more times. Those things matter. What might be the most impressive stat of the year is Kenseth’s 31 lead-lap finishes. When a driver hits 30 in that category, it’s generally title-contending territory.

Matt Kenseth went on a tear in 2003. It wasn’t a winning tear, it was just a tear of great race after great race, at a time when every race mattered.

About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Tim

Thanks for posting this and breaking the comparisons down by month. Those of us who witnessed that season have grown a bit foggy on the specifcs.

Kenseth catches too much crap from those who only look at the win totals (but not the season stats) when trying to claim his championship as undeserved.

Jeremy

Also note: In 2003, 17 different drivers won at least 1 race that year. But that wasn’t the most different winners in a season, not even 2nd place.

2001 = 19 different winners
2002 = 18 different winners
2003 = 17 different winners
2011 = 18 different winners
2013 = 17 different winners

Note: I’m not sure if the data I found included only modern era, or this is for all time. Oddly enough, it doesn’t appear a chronological chart containing the number of different race winners by year exists. If it does, I wasn’t able to find it.

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