45-year old Matt Kenseth has experienced a rollercoaster-ride like none other in what will most likely be his final year competing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The Cambridge, WI native broke the news back in July at Kentucky Speedway that he wouldn’t be returning to compete at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018 as Erik Jones is set to take over the No.20 ride. Jones, a talented 21-year old, has competed sort of “on loan” for Furniture Row Racing in the No.77 car this year. Many knew that Jones would return to JGR at some point in the near future, but for some the idea of him replacing Kenseth in 2018 was hard to swallow.
Contrary to what normally happens to veteran drivers, Kenseth’s on-track performance hasn’t been waning any as he has gotten older. Bad luck has bit the No.20 team on numerous occasions throughout the past few years, most recently at Kansas Speedway in October where Kenseth’s championship hopes were crushed after a pit road violation. But in the last three Monster Energy Cup seasons combined, Kenseth has racked up eight victories and led over 2,000 laps. Kenseth has the second-highest win total at JGR since 2015, only behind Kyle Busch’s 14 victories.
With successful numbers still on his side, Kenseth hoped he’d be able to land a competitive ride for the 2018 season, but that hasn’t been the case. Many competitive rides were open at other organizations, but they were filled up with other drivers. Two rides at Hendrick Motorsports were filled with young drivers, Alex Bowman and William Byron. The No.10 at Stewart-Haas Racing got filled with Aric Almirola, who brought along a full-time sponsor. The No.77 ride at Furniture Row Racing isn’t going to be used next season as the team wasn’t able to secure sponsorship. Long-story short, none of the dominos fell in Kenseth’s favor for 2018.
Knowing that he was still one of the most competitive drivers in the series, Kenseth wasn’t going to settle for a lower-tier ride. On race weekend earlier in the month at Texas Motor Speedway, Kenseth confirmed to NBC Sports what many saw coming.
“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,” said Kenseth during an NBC Sports podcast episode. “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.”
While Kenseth has avoided calling it an official retirement, many know that it’s most likely the end to the Monster Energy Cup veteran’s career. He may still have the talent to win races and compete for championships, but that doesn’t really seem to matter in today’s racing world. A huge youth movement has overtaken the sport in recent years, and Kenseth has unluckily fallen victim to it. Sponsors and teams are looking to work with young drivers who’ll normally take rides for less money than veteran drivers, and who’ll be around the sport for many years to come. A 45-year old veteran like Kenseth, who’s still highly competitive, just doesn’t appeal to teams and sponsors in the long-run.
The bitter part of it all for Kenseth is that he isn’t ready to hang up his helmet, and most everyone knows it. While many of his peers have enjoyed retirement tours in the past few years after personally deciding it was time to quit, Kenseth has experienced the opposite. When he announced that he wasn’t going to have a ride for the 2018 season a few weeks ago, it meant he only had three races left – possibly in his entire career. A three race retirement tour isn’t the most ideal situation for any driver, but Kenseth proved that he’s making the most of it on Sunday in Phoenix.
The middle-aged driver took on young phenom Chase Elliott in an exciting battle for the lead late in the race at Phoenix International Raceway. Shortly after a late race restart, Elliott wrestled the lead away from Kenseth. It was a crucial pass for Elliott, because if he won the race he’d advance to the Championship Four. But with all that had happened recently to Kenseth, the victory meant much more. Kenseth didn’t let Elliott get too far out of his sights. With nine laps to go, Kenseth took the youngster to school and battled the race lead back away. On seemingly the penultimate event of his career, Kenseth drove off into the sunset – pulling away with the race lead before capturing the victory.
Emotions immediately began to pour out from the 45-year old, who’s normally reserved and kept-to-himself. Kenseth climbed out of the car at the start/finish line and jumped up and down on top of his car, pumping his fists while the sold-out crowd cheered and hollered.
“I don’t know what else to say except thank the Lord. It’s been an amazing journey and I know I’m a big baby right now,” Kenseth told NBC after the race. “Just got one race left. Everybody dreams about going out a winner. We won today and nobody can take that away from us. It was a heck of a battle with Chase (Elliott) there. Golly, just thanks DeWalt, Circle K, Toyota, all our sponsors and JGR for a great five years. It’s been quite the journey here the last 20 (years).”
In true walk-off fashion, Kenseth was able to bring home a victory in restless, troubled times. Despite all that had been going on – all the talk about Kenseth being out of a ride after 2017, he was able to put it all behind him and compete like everything was alright.
Many of Kenseth’s competitors came up and congratulated him during the post-race festivities. Elliott, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and others came to pay their respects to the veteran. Dale Earnhardt Jr. sang his praises for Kenseth after the race in an interview with NBC.
“Proud of Matt. How about that,” said Jr. “Win, going out. He kind’ve had to announce his, not retirement, he don’t want to say retirement. He had to say that he’s heading on out and might not be racing anymore. Pretty awesome for him to get a win, and I know that made him really happy.”
Sunday’s victory at Phoenix was Matt’s 39th career victory in the Monster Energy Cup series. With only one race left next weekend at Homestead-Miami, Kenseth hopes he can win one more, for a special reason.
“I’ve raced against great drivers, so, you know – but last year, we won a couple races and I usually never look at stats and I saw Mark (Martin) had 40 and I was like, ‘I just want to get 40 so I can tie my hero Mark.”
Whether Kenseth captures his 40th career win next weekend or not, he was still able to end his career on a high note. His impromptu retirement tour has may not be the ideal way to end a career, but the 45-year old Wisconsin native has certainly made the most of it. In a time where Kenseth is slowly being pushed out by younger competition, if Phoenix ends up being his final career win, he’ll be able to say he went out and beat them one last time.