MILWAUKEE, Wis. (TNS) — In front stood the son of a legend, the face of their sport's future.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 25, a champion in the lower levels of NASCAR and beloved beyond his comfort level, at least, if not his comprehension.

Behind Earnhardt and a half step to his left stood a man who could challenge him on the racetrack but never in a popularity contest. Matt Kenseth, a year and a half older, grew up around racing, too, but in Wisconsin, far from the NASCAR epicenter.

Facing them was a photographer, giving direction between clicks for an image of two rookies who would grace ESPN The Magazine's 2000 season preview cover.

"The image was to express that there is all this hoopla about me coming in and there is all this attention on me, but you better watch this guy Matt," Earnhardt recalled. "... This guy is one you need to keep your eye on and he is lurking over my shoulder.

"But Matt was really frustrated because the photographer kept sliding Matt a little further and a little further behind me. He kept getting more and more angry and he is whispering in my ear how pissed off he was at this photographer because he was like, 'They can't even freaking see me.' "

Keep an eye on him, indeed.

Eighteen seasons later, they went out this weekend the way they came in — together.

Even if Earnhardt couldn't live up to the hoopla, he enjoyed a solid career and will become NASCAR's most popular retiree.

Kenseth — ready or not — will leave NASCAR as the most successful driver to come out of a state with a rich racing history. He'll take with him a championship and at least 39 victories, a legacy of admiration, and a lifetime of memories and friends.

"I've respected Matt a lot, always thought a lot of him, always considered him to be a friend and a good competitor," said NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, the 1988 champion, who raced against Kenseth during 13 seasons. "It's sad to see these guys come and go.

"It's just odd; it seems like just yesterday you were starting out in this mess and now you're at the other end."

Where it began

Kenseth, now 45, started out on the short tracks around his hometown of Cambridge, Wis., southeast of Madison, following his father, Roy, and an uncle who raced.

His first victory came at Columbus 151 Speedway in his third late-model start, when he was 16, and he quickly moved through the local and regional ranks. By the mid-'90s, he ventured to places like the Nashville Fairgrounds in Tennessee and Volusia County Speedway in Florida.

Among those to take notice was Mark Martin, whose path to success was much like Kenseth's. Although he was from Arkansas, Martin came to Wisconsin and worked on his own race cars to become a winner on the competitive Midwest short-track scene.

"I get the results of racing around the country and the late-model stuff and I keep an eye on where I came from," said Martin, now 58, retired and a 2017 inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"So he gets on my radar screen just from winning races. I'm down in NASCAR-land and I just keep seeing his name. And I know he knows his race cars because he's not driving for one guy with one crew chief who knows everything about everything and makes it happen for him."

Robbie Reiser also was well aware of Kenseth's talents.

They had been short-track rivals before Reiser left Allenton in 1994 to try to make it in NASCAR as an owner/driver in the second-tier division then known as the Busch Series.

Underfunded, Reiser struggled to compete, and in 1997 he handed his car over to Tim Bender, who came with a sponsor. Bender was prone to crashing, though, which Reiser could ill afford, so Reiser turned to Kenseth.

The next step

"We were a really small team," said Reiser, who at his peak employed eight crewmen out of a 6,000-square-foot shop in Denver, N.C.

"(But) we had a big heart, we weren't afraid to work 16 hours a day and do pit practice in the snow and do whatever we had to do to come out of the box as competitive as any team we were racing against."

Kenseth finished strong, all things considered, placing as high as third twice and collecting top-10 results in seven of his 21 starts.

Although sponsor Kraft Foods told the team in September it wouldn't return for '98 and several other sponsor pitches fell short, Kenseth had some reasons to be optimistic.

Before his second start in Reiser's car, he met Martin for the first time, and Martin found Kenseth to be humble and respectful, "someone that I would like to pull for and like to help," he said.

"I went immediately to (team owner) Jack Roush and told him: Hey, I know you don't have a place for this kid, but you gotta get him," Martin said. "You gotta get him signed up. He's the one."

Indeed Roush hired Kenseth as a test driver and promised support while Kenseth continued to race Reiser's cars in the Busch Series. The help included marketing, and Roush found full-season backing for Kenseth from the Family Channel.

A setback

"We went down to Daytona to test and I think we were top-three in practice times and we looked real competitive," Reiser recalled. "My dad, sort of, his tone changed on the second day and I didn't know what was going on. ... Halfway home he told me the sponsorship had fallen through.

"We had the cars all built, the motor program in place — so we had spent the money — to go racing in '98, but when the sponsorship fell through we were at a point where we were fully vested, as they would say, and so was the bank."

After consultation with their lender, Robbie and his father, John, were faced with a choice: Close the doors and lose much of what they owned, or go to the first race of the season in Daytona Beach, Fla., and hope to put something together.

Unable to stomach the idea of failure, they chose to move on.

In a last-minute deal brokered by Roush before the opener, Lycos agreed to a one-race sponsorship promoting its internet search engine. And with that backing plus $31,125 in prize money for a sixth-place finish at Daytona International Speedway, the Reisers could pay their bills and go on to the second race, the Goodwrench Service 200 in Rockingham, N.C.

"Whenever anybody asks me, that was the best race of my life and always will be," Kenseth said.

After struggling in practice and qualifying, Kenseth and Reiser got their car handling perfectly for the race. Kenseth methodically drove up through the field into second place on the demanding one-mile North Carolina Motor Speedway. With two laps to go, he was on the bumper of Tony Stewart, and they touched a couple of times over the final miles before Kenseth nudged him in the fourth turn and scooted past.

"We certainly weren't expected to win," Kenseth said. "I bet you the odds were pretty long, and to be able to beat Mark (Martin) and Jeff Burton and beat (Tony) Stewart in the last corner. ...

"Could have went the other way. We could have had a crash, and possibly (our) chance of racing at that level was over."

Kenseth's car had carried the Lycos logo at Rockingham as a thank-you for Daytona and in hopes the company might pick up more races.

By Tuesday after the race, the Reisers had a tentative agreement in place for the rest of the season with Lycos, and by Friday night, John Reiser watched a signed contract creep from a fax machine at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Kenseth won two more times that year and fell just short in a battle with Earnhardt for the Busch Series championship. In September, he also made his debut in the Sprint Cup Series, finishing sixth in Dover, Del., while subbing for Elliott after Elliott's father died.

Just as important, Reiser Enterprises put together a sponsorship deal that would take them not only through the 1999 season but also carry Kenseth into the Cup Series.

He would drive the No. 17 DeWalt Ford full-time for Roush Racing beginning in 2000. Reiser would go along as crew chief. And Martin would be among his teammates.

Kenseth had arrived.

Strong start

"He came in and immediately upped the pressure," said Burton, one of Kenseth's four new teammates. "He brought raw speed. And Mark and I felt like that was a good thing. We knew he was going to push us, we knew he was going to make us better, he was going to make our teams better.

"But he didn't come in with the attitude, 'I'm going to kick y'all's ass.' He didn't come in with the attitude, 'I'm better than you are.' He had the attitude, 'I want to be one of you guys,' and that went a long way."

Kenseth was competitive from the beginning.

He won the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend — one of NASCAR's crown jewels — and finished 14th in the season standings, two spots ahead of Earnhardt, making Kenseth rookie of the year.

Although he went winless the following year, Kenseth broke through for five victories in 2002 and then claimed the Winston Cup championship in 2003 despite winning just once. A relentless pounding of top-five and top-10 finishes throughout the 36-race season allowed Kenseth to clinch with one race to spare, appropriately at Rockingham.

"I bet he was probably down 40 horsepower to everybody else — Roush probably wouldn't admit it, wouldn't like to hear that — but he was just an amazing driver," Earnhardt said.

"I had always been impressed with his talent and his ability. He was as good a driver as anybody that is in the series today."

Kenseth's title was the first for Roush, who had finished as runner-up four times with Martin.

In 2009, Kenseth also became the first Roush driver to win a Daytona 500 — NASCAR's biggest race — and three years later he claimed another.

Earnhardt tried to bring Kenseth to his father's team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., early in their careers, but Kenseth stayed put with Roush through the 2012 season. By then Kenseth had won 24 races and more than $90 million in the Cup Series for Roush.

Next steps

Roush was on the wane when Kenseth decided to leave for Joe Gibbs Racing, eager to win more races and contend for a second championship. The move quickly paid off with a personal-best seven victories in 2013 and a runner-up finish in the championship.

Kenseth also was credited with bringing fresh ideas and a level head to the Gibbs team meetings and to Toyota's evolving NASCAR program.

Kenseth went on to win eight more times in his five seasons with Gibbs — including last weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway. His tenure will end Sunday after the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida as his contract expires and Gibbs turns to 21-year-old Erik Jones as a driver for its future.

Kenseth had held out some hope of finding a job elsewhere but came to the realization in late summer that opportunities are few and far between for well-paid 45-year-old drivers used to racing at a championship level.

So with Jones about to take over his No. 20 Toyota and 24-year-old Alex Bowman and 19-year-old William Byron moving into jobs with powerful Hendrick Motorsports next season, Kenseth revealed two weeks ago he would step aside. Although open to a top-flight ride in the future, Kenseth doesn't expect to find one.

"It's just been quite a journey," Kenseth said.

Making friends

Among Kenseth's closest friends for the longest time is Earnhardt, who estimated their motorhomes in the drivers' lot at racetracks have been parked side by side for 80 percent to 90 percent of their careers.

"I was really shy, didn't have an understanding of how to interact with my peers and competitors that well," Earnhardt said of his earliest years in NASCAR. "I was just trying to do well.

"I was really nervous coming up into the ranks, but Matt engaged me and we became friends through conversations with him really quickly. He has always had an influence on me as far as how I race or the person I want to be or become."

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and his wife, Chandra, got to know Kenseth and his wife, Katie, as their daughters grew up together in the motorhome lot at each racetrack. They've been to the Super Bowl together as guests of mutual sponsor Gatorade, and gone skiing together in Colorado in the off-season.

"We had a barbecue, I think it was last year, (and) they had us over on a nice warm afternoon," Johnson said. "Threw the kids in the pool, and Matt's a big fan of the Green Egg (grill), and he made up some amazing food.

"One thing that's helped our relationship go from just respect and acquaintance at the track is when we are around each other, we both do a really good job of not talking about work."

For a time, Kenseth shared his dry sense of humor and biting sarcasm with fans on Twitter, but he has since abandoned social media because of its frequent negativity. Still, friends know to expect his jabs. After Earnhardt and his wife, Amy, found out she was pregnant, Kenseth texted him with a friendly admonishment because he wasn't among the first to hear.

By waiting until the final month of the season to share his plans to step away, Kenseth hasn't received the normal sendoff of gifts that top drivers often receive during their final visit. Texas Motor Speedway, for example, donated a horse in Earnhardt's name to a therapy ranch that helps people with disabilities, veterans and first responders.

"Sunday he won and I just texted, 'Congrats, that's so cool,' " Texas track president Eddie Gossage said. "That night I get a text from him: 'Thanks. By the way, you owe me a horse.'

"It's not the horse, it's the owing part I think he likes."

On-track respect

One word Johnson uses frequently — as do others when talking about Kenseth — is respect.

Burton, now an analyst for NASCAR broadcasts on the NBC family of networks, has only a few racing photos in his home. His favorite is from a race he won at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, in 2006, after he had moved to a different team. Kenseth pulled his car alongside Burton's facing the opposite direction and gave him a high five.

"We had what I think was one of NASCAR's best races, not because I won, but the quality of racing we had," said Burton, who had hounded Kenseth before finally taking the lead with six laps to go. "We were racing each other side by side, lap after lap, never touched, gave 100 percent.

"I ran into (four-time Indianapolis 500 winner) Rick Mears a year or so later, after that race, and he pulled me aside and said, 'Hey, listen, that race that you and Matt Kenseth had was one of the best races I've seen, and they ought to show that race to aspiring race car drivers to show people that this is how you do it.' "

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

Johnson came to know of Kenseth in the late '90s, after he moved to Wisconsin to transition from off-road trucks to stock cars and oval-track racing. Although Kenseth had moved south, he would come back for late-model races, and Johnson, trying to soak up as much as he could, would watch whenever possible.

Soon they were racing together in the Busch Series and then full-time in Cup beginning in 2002.

"When I was in the Herzog (Motorsports) Busch car (from 1999-2001), I had a few run-ins with Matt where I was the loser when he was the leader and I was usually getting lapped and it didn't turn out too well for me," Johnson said. "But once we got to Cup, we've always had a great deal of respect for one another, and I think that's translated to some really epic battles on track."

But enemies, too

That's not to say Kenseth has had only admirers at the racetrack.

In 2014, a run-in with Brad Keselowski led to Kenseth chasing Keselowski through the garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway and jumping him between trailers before they were separated.

In 2015, Kenseth was suspended for two races after intentionally ramming Keselowski's teammate, Joey Logano, at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia to knock him out of the NASCAR playoffs. The move was retaliation for Logano causing Kenseth to spin two weeks earlier.

In 2012, Tony Stewart famously threw his helmet at Kenseth's car after they'd crashed together at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. The crowd roared as the frustrated three-time champion bounced a two-handed heave directly off Kenseth's hood as Kenseth drove down pit road.

NASCAR has long had an eye-for-an-eye element.

"We disagreed more than once," Stewart said. "But the thing with Matt is if you're reasonable about it and after the weekend if you talk about it you normally can come to a common ground about it. Sometimes you disagreed still after the conversation, but you still found a way to move on."

Nearing the end

Kenseth has three young daughters at home, and his wife is due to deliver their fourth child next month. So while he might have preferred to continue to compete for a couple of more years, life beyond racing came to sound better.

Kenseth admitted Sunday after winning that he was torn about missing his oldest daughter's first competitive gymnastics meet. In the days after his announcement, at least one interview interrupted a Play-Doh session. Earlier this year, Kenseth answered questions about his plans for the future by joking he'd still be driving ... just a school bus.

Although he didn't get to pick his time, Kenseth has come close to going out on top. By beating Chase Elliott — Bill's 21-year-old son — Kenseth ended a 51-race drought in an emphatic, emotional manner Sunday and erased any question about whether he could still get the job done.

"Pretty storybook, and it's possible that he wins this weekend," Martin said. "We'll just have to wait and see. Like Matt said, things happen and he'll embrace what comes next."