The final season of Winston Cup racing was bookended by stops in the state of Florida but the 2003 circuit will be forever memorialized right here in Winston-Salem. This month, we’re featuring the last Winston Cup season and the Winston Cup’s 2003 champion, Matt Kenseth.
The Beginning of the End
Over the course of nine months, the 2003 Winston Cup series made stops in 23 cities across the United States for 36 races. The series saw 17 different drivers win races, including as many as eight victories by one driver, Ryan Newman.
For museum founder and former Winston Cup car owner Will Spencer, that final season was quite simply “the end of an era.”
In late February 2003, the Winston Cup made its first stop of the season in North Carolina at the Rockingham Speedway for the Subway 400. Drivers made 393 laps around the 1.017-mile track and raced under caution for just 46 laps.
Dale Jarrett, in the number 88 UPS Ford, won the race after leading just nine laps, earning 180 points in the Winston Cup standings. Matt Kenseth, in the number 17 Dewalt Power Tools Ford, finished in third place. Three months and nine races passed before the 2003 season’s next stop in North Carolina. Drivers convened Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 25, 2003, for the Coca-Cola 600.
165,000 fans took the race, which saw average race speeds of 126 mph. Ryan Newman, driving the number 12 Alltel Dodge, started the race on the pole with a trial speed of 185 mph but ultimately finished the race in fifth place.
Jimmie Johnson, in the Lowes/Power of Pride number 48 Chevrolet, took the checkered flag in first place under cautioned and gained 180 cup points and $271,900.
The Winston Cup Series took drivers through many of the NASCAR staples including Daytona, Indianapolis, Darlington and Talladega, during the summer months before again racing in Charlotte in early October during the UAW-GM Quality 500.
Tony Stewart claimed victory lane in the number 20 Home Depot Chevrolet after leading 149 of the race’s 334 laps. Stewart earned $312,478 with the win and gained 185 Winston Cup points.
As the 2003 Winston Cup season wound down, drivers made one last stop in Rockingham for the Pop-Secret Microwave Popcorn 400, the season’s next-to-last race. Bill Elliott took the checkered flag in the number 9 Dodge Dealers/ UAW Dodge after leading 140 of the race’s 393 laps. Then it was on to Homestead, Florida for the Ford 400, the 2003 season’s 36th and final race.
The Winston Cup’s final day
Spencer was on-hand at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Winston Cup’s final day and the ceremonial “Victory Lap” after the race. 1971 Winston Cup champion Richard “The King” Petty drove a 1971 Plymouth while Kenseth’s team owner, Jack Roush, followed in a 2003 Ford Taurus the final Winston Cup lap ever. Both cars are on display today at the museum.
“The most important part of the Museum is that it celebrates all Winston did and all the drivers gave to make it the Winston Cup the most watch TV programming at the time,” Spencer said.
How Kenseth took the Cup
Matt Kenseth’s Winston Cup championship was all but assured heading into the final race with a 226-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the standings, but the race will be remembered more for its historical significance than its theatrics.
With one win, 11 tops five finished and 25 top tens, Kenseth claimed the championship cup. He participated in all 36 races during the 2003 season and yet did not start on the pole during a single race.
Kenseth won the Winston Cup with 5022 points, in part because of his consistency at the front of the pack, despite leading only 354 laps during the course of the season. Without a single first-place starting position and just one race victory, Kenseth finished the season with an average starting position of 21.3 and an average finishing position of 10.2.
Kenseth’s lone win of the season came just a week later during the UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he started in 17th position and led 88 laps en route to victory lane. He earned $365,875 with the won and collected 180 cup points.
Though it was well-documented throughout the last Winston Cup Season in 2003 that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. would not renew is sponsorship of the circuit any further, the final lap under its umbrella was no less bittersweet.
Note: 2003 Winston Cup Series results courtesy of racing-reference.info.