The days of being competitive at over 45 years old is gone as 2003 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth will step away from the sport after the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead Nov. 19.
When the checkered flag drops in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 19, a champion will be crown, but it’s far from being the top headline.
The finale will also be 43-year-old Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s final Cup race. For the longest of time, he was going to be the only driver bidding farewell. After Saturday’s announcement, two drivers will most likely be making their final start in the premiere series as 2003 champion Matt Kenseth will leave the sport after 18 full-time seasons.
Kenseth, 45, told NBC Sports he made his decision after Martinsville Oct. 29 and isn’t sure what his sabbatical will mean going forward.
“I’ve put a lot of thought into it and pretty much decided after Martinsville, which I kind of already knew anyway, but we decided to take some time off,” Kenseth said. “I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if that’s forever. I don’t know if that’s a month or I don’t know if that’s five months. I don’t know if that’s two years. Most likely when you’re gone, you don’t get the opportunity again. I just don’t really feel it’s in the cards.”
Kenseth is the latest driver to either retire or leave the sport since 2015 and the fourth Cup champion (the others are Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart) to do so.
This announcement comes three months after Joe Gibbs Racing announced Erik Jones, 21, was replacing Kenseth in No. 20 Toyota next season.
With 2004 champion Kurt Busch, 39, still negotiating with Stewart-Haas Racing about extending their partnership, it leaves Ryan Newman, turns 40 Dec. 8, as the only secured driver who competed against Dale Earnhardt as he debuted at Phoenix Nov. 5, 2000 where he started 10th, but finished 41st.
Winless since Loudon July 16, 2016, Kenseth sits ninth in points and has scored 9 top-5s and 16 top-10s, but a 14.8 average finish is Kenseth’s worst since 2009 and a costly five-minute pit rule disqualification at Kansas Oct. 22 eliminated him from advancing into the Round of 8.
Looking back, I knew it was the end for Kenseth because it was his final shot at a second championship. All he has now are two more shots of winning a race and end his tremendous career on a high note.
As NASCAR enters its 70th season in February, fans have no other choice but accept the second “Youth Movement” as the days of Bobby Allison, Harry Gant and Mark Martin being competitive and winning races past 45 years old is dead.
I’ve said Kenseth is the one guy who can break the mold and join those names who run well past the age of 45. Saturday’s announcement not only meant the end of that possibility, it also shows that youth is the key to success.
Now more than ever, sponsorships, connections and looks is what drives the sport. Gone are the days where soft spoken, cigarette smokers and larger than life athletes which has been one of the main reasons fans lost interest in the sport. Talent is an afterthought if you don’t meet the modern-day criteria of being a NASCAR driver.
We already see it with Hendrick Motorsports as three out of its four drivers are under 25 years old next season. Joe Gibbs Racing’s future also rely on young guns like Jones and Camping World Truck Series standout Christopher Bell who turns 23 Dec. 16.
This leaves guys like Kenseth—who won seven races in 2013 and may finish in the top-10 drivers’ standings this season—hung out to dry as high caliber teams are being taken by younger drivers.
Kenseth admitted after Rick Hendrick signed William Byron, turns 20 Nov. 29, to replace Kasey Kahne, 37, next season, he should’ve realized he won’t have a ride.
“That was one I thought maybe I would get and hopefully go over there and get that car running better. I felt like I could really do that and maybe mentor some of the young drivers coming along, and that didn’t work out, either,” Kenseth said. “Probably after that happened, that should have been the cold water in my face that, ‘All right, you need to accept it and do the best you can this year and figure out what you’re going to do next year and move on.’”
Kenseth added he wants to compete for wins and championships instead of riding around mid-pack. I don’t blame him, who doesn’t want to join a team that can help him accomplish those demands. There’s one caveat. It doesn’t always work as ride availabilities become slim if a driver has high expectations.
It’s probably why nothing came out about Kenseth joining Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 Ford (most likely Aric Almirola’s 2018 ride) or Richard Childress Racing’s No. 27 Chevrolet (rumors suggest Brennan Poole who has the DC Solar sponsorship). He wants a car that has potential like he saw in the No. 5 team. This announcement was a sign there may not be a future in the Cup Series and Kenseth didn’t have any other choice but leave.
“Sometimes you can’t make your own decisions, so people make them for you. That’s unfortunate, because I wanted to make my own decisions,” Kenseth said. “I felt like in a way I’ve earned that to be able to go out the way other drivers who had similar careers to dictate when your time is up. Anyway, I just came to the realization it’s probably time to go do something different.”
Kenseth will keep himself busy at home spending time with his wife Katie and their soon-to-be four children.
“I think it’ll be busier staying at home than going to the racetrack,” Kenseth said. “Right now it’s busy at home. It’s a fun busy, a great busy. I think it keeps you young. As much as I fought it and as much as I tried to deny it’s not time, it probably really is. Even though I feel I can still get it done on the racetrack, I just think it’s probably time, and I need to accept that and move on.”
Going forward, it’s time to embrace the last remaining Winston Cup debutant drivers (1971-2003) before their time in the sport ends because they’re the last of a certain breed. Being a guy who has followed the sport since 2003 (the final year known as Winston Cup), it’s frustrating to see Kenseth leave without a proper sendoff.
Known to be anti-flashy, Kenseth doesn’t shy away from showing his aggression on the track as proven with his feud with Jeff Gordon (2006-2012) and Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski (2014) and Joey Logano (2015).
Before joining Gibbs in 2013, Kenseth wasn’t known for being fast in qualifying as he only won eight of his 20 poles with Roush Fenway Racing (1999-2012). Once the green flag dropped, Kenseth creeped his way towards the front and got the job done.
A main criticism, but a lost art, Kenseth was the master of consistency. Kenseth has scored 15+ top-10 finishes in 15 out of the last 16 seasons (eight of those Kenseth had 20+ top-10s). It’s one stat people may look back and realize how great he was as a driver.
Kenseth doesn’t get the credit he often deserves and still receives criticism by the way he races. Not every driver is wide open on the throttle or decimate the field. Having a guy like Kenseth balances an already diverse field. When it’s crunch time, he’ll knock on the door and pass you for the win like Midwestern drivers tend to do on any given racetrack.
Unfortunately, fans have moved on and already considered an afterthought. Over time, Kenseth will be praised and people will finally understand his rare competitive nature. For now, I’ll cherish the moments and enjoy his final two performances.
A future first ballot Hall of Famer, Kenseth’s career consists of 38 wins including two Daytona 500 victories (2009 and 2012), an All-Star Race win (2004) and beating Dale Jr. for 2000 Rookie of the Year. The latter speaks for itself, the top two drivers from the 2000 rookie class may end their career together.
Maybe after the race is over at Homestead, we’ll see both drivers run a tribute lap as the two contrast personalities thank the fans who have seen their journey for almost two decades.