Matt Kenseth is the one driver that’ll remain competitive for years to come and retirement shouldn’t be brought up into the conversation as silly season looms.
EDITORS NOTE: This was published hours before the announcement came out that Erik Jones will replace Matt Kenseth in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota beginning in 2018. Here were my thoughts about Kenseth’s future that remains unchanged.
Matt Kenseth is going to be the next guy to retire from NASCAR.
This comment has become the norm among NASCAR fans, predicting the 2003 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion will join the likes of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and walk into the sunset.
I’m in the minority, I don’t think Kenseth, 45, is going to retire anytime soon.
Kenseth’s press conference at Kentucky Speedway Friday sparked more speculations of his future.
Kenseth said he doesn’t believe he’ll return to Joe Gibbs Racing—the team he’s driven for since 2013 with tremendous success—after this season nor believes he has the option to ask car owner Joe Gibbs for a new deal.
It leaves Kenseth as one of the top free agents going into 2018. Dale Jr.—who Kenseth competed against for the 1999 Xfinity Series championship and 2000 Cup Rookie of the Year—said he’s confident Kenseth will have a top ride next season.
Bouncing Back from Rough Start
As the Cup Series enters the second half of the season, Kenseth sits 11th in points overall. Without a win, it puts Kenseth down to 16th. Good enough for the final playoff spot with only eight regular season races remaining.
Throughout the first half of 2017, retirement talks peaked after Kenseth had a pair of hard hits at Phoenix and Fontana, putting him 25th in the standings.
At first, I felt Kenseth may miss a few races because of the new concussion protocol but nothing came out regarding my concern and Kenseth soldiered on.
Several fans thought Kenseth’s special announcement heading into Bristol was going to be about his NASCAR future. Instead, it was a six-race sponsorship deal with Circle K, retirement was out of the question.
From there—in typical Kenseth fashion—consistency and staying out of trouble has propelled Kenseth just outside the top 10.
What I got from Kenseth’s press conference was the desire of continuing racing remained apparent and still wants to win races despite having doubts about his future at Gibbs.
Model of Consistency and Controversy
In an era where retirement has become a major trend, Kenseth is the last of the “Young Guns Boom” from the early 2000s. As a matter of fact, Kenseth will be the last 1990s debutant driver (Kenseth debuted at Dover 1998 filling for Bill Elliott) that still runs the full schedule after Dale Jr. retires.
Kenseth has had a stellar and controversial career. 38 wins, two Daytona 500 wins and of course, being the last “Winston Cup” champion.
While those stats are first ballot Hall of Fame worthy, he’s had his share of criticism fans haven’t forgotten.
Kenseth’s 2003 championship run received backlash because of his points racing strategy rather than winning races. Kenseth was seventh in top 5’s with 11 to Ryan Newman’s season-high 17.
However, Kenseth led the series in top 10’s with 25 of 36 races, three ahead of Newman and had the best average finish at 10.2, a full spot ahead of runner-up Jimmie Johnson.
Certainly, Kenseth had a strong campaign and earned the championship while Newman had inconsistent runs highlighted with seven DNF’s (including a flip, triggering a 27-car pileup and his car being engulfed in flames) and seven finishes outside the top 30.
Kenseth however only had one win at Las Vegas to Newman’s eight and clinched the championship in the penultimate race at Rockingham. It was the fourth time in a span of five years the title wasn’t decided at the season finale.
The sole win and clinching the title early led to the Chase being born the following year and Kenseth hasn’t won a championship since as wins (specifically during the playoffs) have become more rewarding than consistency.
Statistically, Kenseth’s most successful seasons were in 2002, 2006, 2013 and 2015 when he won more than three races and finished second twice (2006 and 2013) in those four seasons, both to Jimmie Johnson.
No question, Kenseth is a proven winner but consistency is what he’s known for and just hasn’t quite delivered during the playoffs to make him an all-time great like Johnson.
Kenseth was also scolded by critics for deliberately taking out Joey Logano at Martinsville Nov. 1, 2015, costing Logano a Championship 4 spot and resulted Kenseth a two-race suspension.
Many fans applauded Kenseth for taking out NASCAR’s modern-day Kryptonite after Logano spun Kenseth out at Kansas in the second round of the playoffs. Logano advanced while Kenseth was eliminated.
Others including Kyle Petty were outraged and in their eyes Kenseth deserved punishment. The Martinsville incident gave the sport a bad reputation because the sport has tried to distance themselves from being a sport featuring callous drivers wanting to kill their competitors.
I’ve also had my opinions about Kenseth over the years, some have been negative because of his incidents with Jeff Gordon from 2006-2012. It has led Gordon being fined $10,000 for physically shoving Kenseth at Bristol 2006 and a win taken away at Martinsville 2010.
I wasn’t the biggest Kenseth fan for years but I’ve always respected his “silent yet effective” driving style. That never changed during those six seasons of personal animosity.
Underrated driver when it comes to aggression. Put a bumper on Kenseth, don’t expect to get away with it and that’s been proven in his adventurous 20-year Cup career.
Racing Past 40 a Thing of the Past?
The sport really needs a long-time veteran like Kenseth. He’s still a fierce competitor that contends for race wins. His stint at Gibbs revitalized his career to new heights and brought back the fire that might’ve been lost during his final years at Roush Fenway Racing.
Kenseth will win again but it’s a matter of when because his team has yet to visit victory lane in Cup this season. Last season, Gibbs’ four-car operation won 12 races but neither driver captured the championship.
Kyle Busch fell short of defending his title and Carl Edwards had a late-race crash and since retired. Kenseth and Denny Hamlin failed to qualify for the Championship 4. Joe Gibbs Racing’s disappointment from Homestead are still there and they’re slowly recovering from its hangover.
NASCAR’s next stop, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway July 16—a track Kenseth has won three times and the site of his last win 35 races ago—may be his best chance to prove the critics wrong that the oldest full-time driver in the field at age 45 can still be a race winner in NASCAR’s highest level.
I’ve said for years Kenseth is that one guy who will run past 45 and join the likes of Bobby Allison, Harry Gant and Mark Martin who remained contenders all the way to their early 50s.
Kenseth is the least likely to fall under obscurity like Derrike Cope and Morgan Shepherd has been in the 21st Century who still race past 50 but for low budget teams.
I’m willing to go further and say Kenseth has an excellent shot of being the oldest champion currently held by Allison when he won his only title in 1983 at nearly 46 years old.
There aren’t many drivers past 40 these days as Johnson and Kevin Harvick—both 42 next year—will be the only full-time drivers who have secured rides in 2018. Those two will be around but for how much longer?
I do see Harvick competing in his late 40s but for Johnson, I do think he’ll retire after his new three-year deal ends. Kenseth is the only driver past 45 right now who is a legit contender but has the sport lost its longevity drivers?
It’s not the same sport I grew up watching when Kenseth won the championship where the will to compete in the sport for 20+ years like Hall of Famers Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte was common.
The demands of a driver pleasing their sponsors and earning good amount of money has put a heavy load on their schedule. It’s gotten to the point where drivers may say ‘I’m financially set, it’s time to step away’ or ‘This is not what I signed up for when I started.’ The sport’s landscape is vastly different and maybe why we’re seeing this epidemic in NASCAR.
Stress and poor performances can also damage a driver’s longevity and can explain the high mass of drivers leaving (ex. John Wes Townley) or make a career change (ex. Brian Scott) the past two years.
I’m certain Kenseth is financially set where he can walk away but he still shows interest of staying in NASCAR if he finds a ride next season.
Where Does Kenseth Go Next Season?
Silly season buzz hasn’t been this dramatic in quite some time where top caliber rides are open and may leave some double-digit Cup winners without a ride.
Hendrick Motorsports has yet to announce their 2018 plans as Dale Jr.’s No. 88 car and most likely Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 car will be vacant.
Stewart-Haas Racing hasn’t announced their plans either and signs tell Danica Patrick may be on her way out of the No. 10 car and possibly the sport.
If Kenseth indeed won’t be back in the No. 20 car, it puts Erik Jones as the top guy to replace Kenseth. This gives Kenseth an opportunity to replace Jones in Furniture Row Racing’s No. 77 car and pair up with Martin Truex, Jr. as teammates.
The Kentucky press conference has also left fans believing Kenseth will join Hendrick, replacing Dale Jr. It will be a good fit for Kenseth to showcase his competitive nature yet again like he’s done for Gibbs. Martin did it when he joined Hendrick in 2009 so why not Kenseth?
There’s only one caveat. If they sign Kenseth and/or Xfinity Series driver William Byron, where does Hendrick test driver Alex Bowman go?
Say Kenseth takes the No. 88 and car owner Rick Hendrick doesn’t re-sign Kahne and doesn’t shut down the No. 5 team that’s been around since the team’s inception in 1984, Bowman should be the obvious choice.
Byron should either stay at JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series for another year or get called up to run for either Gibbs or Furniture Row.
Trust me, Byron has done an incredible job in his rookie season in NXS with two wins under his belt but it won’t hurt him staying another year.
This does however put Hendrick under the microscope on who should replace Dale Jr. and possibly Kahne.
The worst-case scenario could see Bowman end up like Formula One test drivers Paul di Resta, Luca Badoer and Gary Paffett, never getting the nod to run the team they’re testing for full-time.
The sport just doesn’t work that way because sponsors are critical to a team’s operation more than it has ever been before. This is where Bowman’s chances are damaged but I’m sure all parties will help him find a sponsor if selected.
Then there’s Danica’s ride. Does Stewart-Haas want a proven winner that’s young or wants a driver with tons of experience?
Kahne will factor into this silly season madness. Stewart-Haas may consider Kahne as a contender to replace Danica.
If Kahne isn’t considered, he’ll either drop to a lower series or run dirt tracks under his own race team where he can be a contender on a weekly basis after years of being Hendrick’s weakest link.
Knocking on the door is Xfinity Series rookie Cole Custer who isn’t ready to compete in Cup. Custer has some ways to go but his advantage is the sponsorship ties he has with Haas because Custer’s father, Joe, is the executive vice president of Stewart-Haas.
With those things in mind, it may leave Kenseth only two options, Hendrick or Furniture Row.
If I had to predict where he ends up in 2018, Furniture Row is the best-case scenario.
Barney Visser’s team has been around since 2005 and recently became one of NASCAR’s top teams with Truex, Jr. being the strongest car the past few seasons including seven victories.
Jones has also done an impressive job in the No. 77, earning five top-10 finishes and sits 14th overall in points. It can be encouraging for Kenseth if selected to run the second Furniture Row car.
No matter what, those are my predictions and the drivers considered are speculations. Time will tell when these changes will be made but it shouldn’t be much longer until we see silly season kicking into high gear.
Kenseth will find a competitive ride and continue to be one of NASCAR’s elite competitors by the turn of the decade. Retirement is irrelevant.