Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: The Final Champ of the Winston Cup Era Was the Subject of Controversy

The 2003 Ford 500 NASCAR Cup race at Homestead Miami has a place in stock car racing history for two reasons: It was the last race of the noteworthy Winston Cup era that began in 1971. And it was where a young Matt Kenseth won his first, but also the last, official Winston Cup championship — and became the center of controversy over how he won it.

How R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston brand of cigarettes became part of NASCAR is the stuff of lore. It’s also a story with which I think you are very familiar.

In 1971, legendary team owner Junior Johnson, one of NASCAR’s first inductees into its Hall of Fame, was at a crossroads. Already a successful team owner, he determined that he couldn’t continue unless he spent his own money — something he decidedly did not want to do. So, he arranged a meeting with R.J. Reynolds, located in Winston-Salem, N.C., just about an hour from his shops in Ronda.

Johnson proposed that RJR sponsor his team. Officials asked him how much money it would take. Johnson told them. He was flabbergasted when he was told not that it was too much, but that it was far too little. RJR explained that the federal government had recently banned cigarette advertising from television. As a result, the company had millions in marketing and ad money at its disposal.

To his credit, Johnson quit thinking about himself and suggested RJR get in touch with NASCAR. If the company could strike a deal with the sanctioning body, it would benefit all competitors. Which it did. The Winston Cup Series was created and it offered a season-long championship program that offered thousands in monetary rewards, including a tidy sum for the title winning driver and team.

As beneficial as the new Winston Cup Series was to competitors, it was equally so for NASCAR.

By 1971, the sanctioning body was teetering on the edge of extinction. The Detroit auto manufacturers had withdrawn most of their financial and technical support, which were the life blood of NASCAR. That meant that even the most established and successful teams had to find sponsorship if they wanted to survive. That was not an easy task and for the lesser, “independent” teams that never enjoyed factory support, the job was even harder.

Which is why Johnson found himself looking for money — a search that led, through RJR, to NASCAR’s salvation.

What RJR did for NASCAR over 32 years cannot easily be measured, if it can be measured at all. The company poured millions into the sport, and not just through the point fund and other programs. It created the All-Star race, originally known as the Winston. It sponsored races, teams and cars. It formed the Winston Million program, which awarded a remarkable $1 million bonus to any driver who could win selected races in a single season.

It even painted buildings and walls for any track that wanted it done — for free, of course, and only in red and white, the colors of the Winston cigarette pack.

The point fund evolved to the level where the once lowly “independent” drivers could, if they finished high enough in the standings, become millionaires in a single season.

But it’s said all good things come to an end, and so it was with the RJR-NASCAR. The cigarette company announced that 2003 would be the last year of the Winston Cup Series. That made the 2003 season a stronger source of attention than almost all its predecessors. Who would be the driver to be crowned the last Winston Cup champion?

Enter Matt Kenseth.

The former short-track star out of Wisconsin had been racing for team owner Jack Roush since 1999. In 2003, he was doing extremely well. In fact, he was doing so well that he clinched the final Winston Cup championship a week before the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That, of course, made the Ford 400 a race of little consequence.

Which was a good thing for Kenseth. He started 37th in the race and blew an engine after just 28 laps. He finished 43rd, dead last, and had to wait three hours before he could celebrate his championship.

If circumstances had been different and Kenseth had to race for the championship, he couldn’t have done a much better job giving it away.

Afterward, he was immediately immersed in controversy.

Critics of the NASCAR Winston Cup point system — and there were countless numbers of them over the years — claimed it was unreasonable that champion be a driver who won only a single race in a season. Which Kenseth did in 2003, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Additionally, the fact that Kenseth led the points standings for 33 weeks despite only having the one victory, as well as already having clinched the Winston Cup title with one week to go in the season led to discussions on how to prevent Kenseth’s feat from happening again.

Some declared to accomplish that was to make the driver who won the most races in a season the champion.

However, the point system (created in the 1970s by the late Bob Latford, a long time NASCAR statistician and public relations official) rewarded consistency and not so many victories. And Kenseth was the model of consistency. In 2003, he finished 25 times among the top 10, including the victory, and 11 finishes among the top five in 36 races.

He was the very model of a champion for the time.

Of course, after 2003 NASCAR changed everything, beginning with the Chase, and eventually, the formation of the playoff system we have today.

Oh, yes, the critics are still with us.

As an aside, the Ford 400 may have been an anticlimactic race, but that certainly can’t be said for the accompanying Nationwide and Truck Series events. They are ranked as perhaps the two greatest in each series’ history.

And, uh, you can learn all about them, and more, in The Scene Vault Podcast this week.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

Share this article

7 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kurt Smith

I don’t recall a single NASCAR fan I know having a problem with how Kenseth won the championship in 2003. He certainly earned it more than a lot of modern day champions have.

By the way, the Ford 400 that year was a great race, regardless of it having no meaning as far as championship implications. I remember Bill Elliott, in his last race as a full-time driver, dominating the field and then blowing a tire on the last lap, giving the race win to Bobby Labonte. I thought it was pretty exciting to watch.

BTW, in the last 15 years, NASCAR hasn’t had anything near approaching the ratings and attendance numbers that they did back then.

DoninAjax

Isn’t it great how the NA$CAR brian trust has tried to tweak their POINTS system and a driver still doesn’t have to win an event in order to win the title.

Kevin in SoCal

Cigarettes SUCK and I’m glad they’re no longer sponsoring racing.

I’m pretty sure Kenseth’s team tried something new in that final race to see if they could get him another victory, but it didn’t work and blew the engine.

Kurt Smith

Actually I remember Roush’s engines being notoriously fragile that year, and Kenseth happened to be lucky with that until the last race.

Gray Bostick

Another fine one, my friend

Robert Hightower

Dale Earnhardt said on a few occasions the Latford points was the closest thing to fair, and most agreed with that and also the point it didn’t reward winning enough. In the 90s Latford himself suggested giving a 50 point bonus to the race winner. Every instance from ’75 to ’03 where a championship was won by consistency over wins would have had a different champion. Use this system and get rid of the arbitrary nature of the current playoffs.

Me

Tobacco money is dirty money!

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com