Ten Years Ago Rookies Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth Stole the Coca-Cola 600 Show
This year marks the 10th anniversary of a time when two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookies came to Charlotte Motor Speedway and made headlines with their achievements in the circuit’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth etched their names in the record books, as Earnhardt Jr. claimed the pole for the event, and Kenseth celebrated in Victory Lane.
In 2000 the two drivers were dueling for rookie honors in NASCAR's premier series. A week before recording his first Coca-Cola 600 pole, Earnhardt Jr. became the first rookie to win the NASCAR Sprint All-Star race.
However, since that magical weekend that predicted stardom for the two young drivers, their respective careers have resembled roller-coaster rides with more twists and turns than anyone could have foretold.
Kenseth, who defeated Earnhardt Jr. for Rookie of The Year honors in 2000, has claimed a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, while the third-generation driver is still searching for one.
Kenseth has finished in the top 10 in the point standings six straight times. Earnhardt Jr. has made it to the top 10 four times. Neither driver has made it into the top 10 in the standings the last two years.
Both have a Daytona 500 victory, as well as a victory in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. Yet when it comes to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races on the regular schedule, Kenseth is the only one with a Charlotte Motor Speedway victory. Earnhardt Jr.’s best finish at his home track came in October 2004 when he placed third. His best Coca-Cola 600 finish – fourth – occurred in 2000. The 35-year-old Kannapolis, N.C., native readily admits “I love this race track. I love this area.” But that extra 100 miles in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series longest race is tough.
“We run 500 miles and your body gets used to it and you think you wouldn't notice another 100 miles added, but mentally you do,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That last 100 miles is really tough mentally. Trying to stay focused, trying to stay on task and trying to stay devoted to what you're doing because it's so easy just to kind of go, ‘I’m tired.’ Physically, it’s not a problem, but mentally your brain is just worked after it’s over with.”
Kenseth has acknowledged that the Coca-Cola 600 is “really my favorite event of the year.
“We won our first (career Cup) race here at the 600, so that makes it kind of special for us,” Kenseth said. “It’s just one I always look forward to. It was always a real challenge, especially before they repaved the track and it was real bumpy and stuff. It was a real challenge to hang onto your car early in the day and still have it adjusted right where it would run fast at night.”
Still, the two men, whose ages are separated by only two years, sport similar Charlotte Motor Speedway records. Both have started 21 races at the track with Earnhardt Jr. slightly better in the laps completed department. He has completed 94 percent of his laps and led 312 of them. Kenseth has a 92.6 percent completion ratio, while leading 298 laps. However, Kenseth narrowly has more top-fives – six to five – and top-10s – 10 to nine. Earnhardt Jr. owns fewer DNFs than Kenseth at Charlotte Motor Speedway – three to five – but his average finish is worse, 19.4 to 15.6.
Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. will battle again at Charlotte Motor Speedway in both the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on May 22 and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 30. Tickets for all May races can be purchased online at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com or by calling the speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS. Friends and family four-pack tickets start at just $39.75 per person for the Coca-Cola 600 and at $35 per person for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.