CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Mark Martin may have been the only person happier than Matt Kenseth on Wednesday morning at the NASCAR Hall of Fame after it was officially announced that Kenseth would be returning to Roush Fenway Racing.
Martin psyched the assembled media out by playing off his introduction of Kenseth as if he was the one coming out of retirement, before taking a seat next to Kenseth on stage and flashing a brilliant smile as Kenseth spoke with vigor about his homecoming to RFR.
Later, when Martin spoke in regards to the driver he first brought to team owner Jack Roush in 1998, the reason behind his joy at seeing Kenseth share driving duties of Roush’s famed No. 6 Ford was clear.
Martin was enjoying the moment as a fan as much as he was enjoying it as a mentor and former driver.
The five-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship runner-up and NASCAR Hall of Famer was visibly pleased and overcome with emotion at the proceedings Wednesday morning, which were capped off by an unveiling of the new No. 6 Wyndham Rewards Ford.
Kenseth’s part-time ride for the season will carry a baby blue and white paint scheme that echoes the look that Martin drove during his waning days at RFR, when Pfizer Inc. and Viagra were the main sponsors with owner Jack Roush’s flagship team.
When you combine the historic look with the fact that Kenseth – who Martin considers his “favorite driver” – will be stepping into the seat of the car that Martin argues made him a Hall of Famer, the impact left the 59-year-old Arkansas native almost lost for words.
“I can’t tell you what that (the car) means to me. I have been so excited, but I don’t know that I can describe to you what it means to me to look at that car and knowing that my favorite driver of all-time is gonna be in that car part-time,” said Martin. “I’ve always liked Matt … how he carries himself, what he does on the race track, and it means a lot to me to see him getting back with Jack and climbing behind the wheel of the (No.) 6 car. It makes me feel proud to know that he is going to be working hard to improve the performance of Roush (Fenway) Racing.”
Asked why he considers Kenseth his favorite driver, Martin didn’t hesitate in his answer.
“Jeff Burton is the guy I have the most respect for as far as race car drivers go, because he helped more than anyone ever did and he is really special to me, but what I like about Matt is a little bit different than that. I met with Matt at the driver’s meeting at Talladega and had a conversation with him for 30 minutes and knew right then that he was the right guy for the job,” explained Martin. “I had heard and knew what he had been doing in Wisconsin, but when I met him I just knew. … It was just different. I knew he was the right guy.
“Matt knows about race cars. He knew about race cars then. He won races in different cars against people that I knew were hard to beat, and that told me that there wasn’t a crew chief that made Matt fast and made Matt win. He just knew race cars,” Martin added. “He’s enough old-school to be able to bring that to the table and yet enough new-school to be able to adapt. Racing has changed all through the years and he’s been able to adapt to the simulation era and this technology era. How I knew that? I don’t know. Maybe I just got lucky, but I knew that he was that kind of driver – the kind of driver that could do it all and adapt and change through it all, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”
During his 19-year tenure with Roush Fenway Racing, Martin won 83 NASCAR national series races under Roush’s ownership, including 35 of his 40 Cup Series races. Four of his five second-place points finishes also came in Roush-owned Fords.
That means that Martin – Roush’s first Cup Series driver – still has a fierce passion for seeing the team perform well, even though his own driving days have long-since passed by.
“I have a lot sweat-equity and pride in this organization. After all, it was this man right here (Roush) and all the great people that built that organization brick by brick that enabled me to become a part of this amazing Hall of Fame here,” noted Martin. “I don’t have the words to articulate what it means to me and what they mean to me and what the organization means to me. It’s a really exciting time for me.”