With four-time champion Jeff Gordon out of the car and three-time champion Tony Stewart entering his final year, a significant change is taking place in NASCAR.
Former champion Matt Kenseth is 43 years old, but the two-time Daytona 500 winner isn’t ready to stop racing.
“I’d say physically I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in the last 15 years at least,’’ Kenseth said during the NASCAR Media Tour last month. “It seems like I’ve had more time at home and been working harder to be in shape physically and mentally. I feel great. I’m ready to go.’’
While Kenseth looks ahead to this season, he acknowledges the changes taking place in the driver landscape.
Kenseth is one six drivers 40 and older set to run a majority of races this year. The others are Greg Biffle (46 years old), Stewart (44), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (41), Kevin Harvick (40) and Jimmie Johnson (40). Jamie McMurray will turn 40 in June.
“Most of that core somewhere in the next three to four to eight years, they’re probably going to go by the wayside as well,’’ Kenseth said. “Certainly there’s a big changing of the guard.’’
At least 13 drivers under the age of 30 are expected to compete in every Cup race this season, including 20-year-old rookie Chase Elliott, 22-year-old rookie Ryan Blaney, 23-year-old rookie Chris Buescher and 23-year-old Kyle Larson.
A key question some are asking this season is how does the sport replace Gordon — and how will it replace Stewart next year. Kenseth isn’t worried.
“I don’t think you ever replace them,’’ said the 2003 Cup champion. “I don’t think you ever replaced the guys before us. You can’t replace a personality, a driving style or, like you say, a star power of Jeff Gordon.
“Those are things that happen. They build their own reputation. I think there’s always that change. Sometimes that change is bigger than others.
“Sometimes it’s one here and you go a couple of years and maybe one or two more, and sometimes you have more of a group. It kind of feels like what is coming is more of a group. I think the group six or seven years from now is going to look at lot different then the end of (last) year when Jeff was still here.’’
Kenseth’s focus is on this season, building on last year when he won five races and moving past his battles with Joey Logano that led to Kenseth intentionally wrecking Logano at Martinsville Speedway and being suspended two races for it.
“I feel like I’ve got a great race team,’’ Kenseth said. “Jason (Ratcliff) does a great job leading that team. I think Jason is the best crew chief out there.”
Because of that, there is no reason, Kenseth says, to ponder when he’ll retire.
“I haven’t really thought about a time a lot myself,’’ he said. “I love what I’m doing. I feel that I’m as competitive as I’ve ever been.’’