Matt Kenseth has always been a “take it in stride” kind of guy, and he insists that’s the way he’s looking at the latest turn in his racing career – even if it’s the last one.
No, of course this isn’t how Kenseth would have drawn up his departure from NASCAR. And yes, of course he is disappointed he’s stepping away in 2 weeks because there are no opportunities for him.
But this is his reality.
“I wish things would have worked out differently or got handled differently or all that kind of stuff, or [I] could have finished [my] career there or at least had the opportunity to another year or two,” Kenseth said Monday. “That part, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t really disappointed the way that all went down.
“But other than that, no. Probably August or so, I 80 or 90 percent accepted it. You have to embrace it and have to make the most of it.”
Kenseth, the 2003 champion and a two-time Daytona 500 winner, said publicly for the first time Saturday he would step away from NASCAR at the end of this season. If a top-notch opportunity came along, he’d certainly be interested, but at age 45 he really isn’t expecting that either.
Kenseth has two races – Sunday in Phoenix and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup finale in Homestead, Fla., a week later – to add to a résumé that includes 38 victories and 20 poles, 180 top-five finishes and 235 top-10s in the top division. The first of those wins came in a crown jewel event, the 2000 Coca-Cola 600, and with his two Daytona 500s victories and a Southern 500, he won three of NASCAR’s four crown jewels.
If nothing comes along after this season, Kenseth will finish a career that began in 1998 with 650 starts in NASCAR’s top division.
Joe Gibbs Racing announced this summer that 21-year-old Erik Jones would replace Kenseth in the No. 20 Toyota.
“Man, I’m a super-blessed guy,” Kenseth said in his first comments with reporters in his home state of Wisconsin. “I’ve had an awesome career for a lot of years. I’ve been in good cars with good people my whole entire career.
“Got to work with a lot great people, got a great family at home, got a lot to look forward to looking forward. There’s nothing to be too disappointed or upset about. At the end of the day, JGR did exactly what they committed to, and so did I.”
Kenseth said he began to see the handwriting on the wall as Gibbs and Toyota worked with Furniture Row Racing to build a second Cup team for Jones to team with Martin Truex Jr. this season.
Kenseth was still hopeful of finding a spot with a winning team until late this summer when Hendrick Motorsports hired 24-year-old Alex Bowman and 19-year-old William Byron for its two openings next year.
“There’s probably opportunities to go do something if you want to just want to go do something, but I’ve been fortunate throughout my career that I’ve felt the top teams all wanted me and wanted me to be over there and do all that,” Kenseth said.
“July or August, that’s when I probably knew in my heart it probably wasn’t meant to be to continue racing at this level.”
Over the past 4 years, Kenseth has seen many of his peers bow out.
Jeff Burton, one of Kenseth’s first NASCAR Cup Series teammates and a longtime friend, announced in 2013 he’d be heading for the TV booth. He was 46.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon had his farewell tour in 2015, and was 45 when he stepped out of a stock car for the final time after filling in for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. for eight races in 2016.
Then three-time champion Tony Stewart retired after last season. He’s older than Kenseth, but only by 10 months.
Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards abruptly retired in January at the age of 37.
And finally Earnhardt, who had been plagued by concussions, announced in April he’d run through the end of this season, with a few exceptions to fill previous commitments. Earnhardt will turn 44 this week.
“When you see a bunch of drivers that are close to your age … start retiring, you think more about it,” Kenseth said.
It’s not completely accurate to say Kenseth held off saying anything about 2018 until last week because he was in denial. He has felt a certain sense of relief having publicly admitted what he had anticipated for a year and, realistically, had accepted late in the summer.
“But on the other hand, when you see those people retiring, I probably felt better about job security and getting to drive a top-notch car, especially as long as I was running good, just because a lot of the good drivers and the legends and stuff were leaving.
“Hypothetically that should leave more seats, but it didn’t work out that way.”
“You kind of get tired of being at the track and people asking, ‘Do you have a ride for next year?’ and [about] what you’re doing next year,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to clean that up before the end of the year, and I think it’s nice for your fans.
“I’ve had a lot of friends and family lately come to the racetrack … trying to come and see the last few races and stuff. So part of it is nice, to get it out there and get rid of the indecision and thinking about it all the time.”