Ryan: Matt Kenseth deserves to call the shots on how his career ends

2 Comments

In the end, and this truly could have an extra measure of finality, it wasn’t up to Matt Kenseth whether he would compete for a Cup championship.

When his pit crew inexplicably broke its own carefully mapped out protocols and dispatched an extra man over the wall at Kansas Speedway to fix his No. 20 Toyota (which seemed repairable), NASCAR responded in kind by literally taking the wheel from the Joe Gibbs Racing driver – eliminating Kenseth from playoff title contention in what might be his last season on the premier circuit.

The feeling of powerlessness had to be familiar.

If there is a recurring theme in Kenseth’s career, it’s that too often his Hall of Fame brilliance has been blunted by forces entirely beyond his control.

The most obvious example is unfolding in real time: The cold realization that the Cambridge, Wisconsin, native is winding down what most likely will be the four remaining races of his 18th and final year in Cup.

That also isn’t Kenseth’s decision.

He remains highly competitive and in peak physical condition at 45, but the whims of corporate sponsorship and economics of team ownership are denying him an exit from NASCAR on his own terms.

Though there are whispers he could remain in a competitive ride if willing to compromise on the at-track conveniences and salary commanded by someone of his accomplishment and experience, the fact remains that Kenseth is in a unique situation when compared to retiring peers Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – none of whom were forced into facing such hard choices beyond choosing the year of their last go-round.

Kenseth, who always has faced the incessant and tough questions (even if his answers weren’t necessarily as pithy and quotable as many wanted to hear), simply deserves better in being appreciated for what he has delivered during one of the more unheralded careers in NASCAR.

It isn’t just the 38 career wins (third among active drivers) or the 13 playoff appearances in 14 attempts (second only to Jimmie Johnson). It’s the overlooked stand-up style of a star whose laconic nature belies his lead-by-example methods that can be quietly forceful when things aren’t going right. Joe Gibbs Racing likely won’t miss a beat in performance when Erik Jones replaces Kenseth in 2018, but a veteran presence certainly will be lacking in its Tuesday debriefs.

Yet there are some who might complain Kenseth hasn’t been outspoken enough, which misses an important point about the last truly blue-collar driver in Cup.

Hailing from a state known for its dichotomy of fiercely independent politics built on firebrand flourishes of expression and hard-working labor constructed on head-down agriculture and manufacturing, Kenseth rarely diverts from the task at hand (in this instance, racing).

But yet when he has something to say, he always does – and often with the deadpan wit that can make a sharp point while simultaneously defusing the most emotionally charged controversy (NASCAR officials should have thanked him for his post-Richmond ambulance tweet).

That wonderfully droll sense of humor also has a veiled crossover appeal. He hardly gets mentioned when compared to his transcendent counterparts, but the funniest bit involving a NASCAR driver on National Public Radio was Matt Kenseth as the straight man who turned Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me into a laugh riot.

It was hilarious in part because it was such an unlikely stage for Kenseth, who never bothers concealing disdain for self-aggrandizement. He can’t help it if he isn’t the sort who toots his own horn – just as he can’t help having any say over many events in the past two decades that precluded him getting his due.

When he found the spotlight, first in the Xfinity Series in 1998 and then again in Cup in 2000, Kenseth couldn’t have controlled being caught in the shadow of a 14-time most popular (but less successful) driver for the entirety of his career.

When he won the 2003 championship with the most workmanlike of efforts, it wasn’t Kenseth’s call to change the title format (he memorably wasn’t even consulted before NASCAR chairman Brian France announced the change) – though it forever (and unfairly) became linked to his greatest achievement.

When he took Johnson to the wire for the 2013 title, it wasn’t Kenseth who committed the comedy of errors at Phoenix International Raceway that doomed what probably will be remembered as his last great bid at the championship. Just like last Sunday at Kansas, it was his team that cost him the shot.

Kenseth merits at least one more opportunity.

He doesn’t have the power to make that happen. But someone does – and should.

XXX

Put aside the debate over whether NASCAR needs to eradicate the echoes of “Office Space” that have seeped into its officiating (“We noticed you’re having trouble with restarts … did you not get that memo about the apron, inside lane and white line and why it’s OK to do something illegal if someone else does it first?”), there’s no question that communication needs to be improved about the rules.

It is a problem when drivers meetings – which are decked out with enormous red carpets, omnipresent countdown clocks and ear-splittingly high-volume warmup music that would make Nickelback shudder – are held up as some sort of sacrosanct forum for discussing the rules and their game-changing applications that could determine the course of a championship.

They are the NASCAR equivalent of holding school board meetings at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Yes, it is the responsibility of teams to understand the rules when they are presented to them.

It also is the responsibility of NASCAR for delivering the information in a manner that ensures its absorbtion.

The current dog and pony shows that drivers meetings have evolved into over the years don’t meet that standard.

Either the meetings need to be conducted within an environment and with a purpose conducive to a real discussion about the rules (see the example below from Formula One this past weekend in Austin), or the important ground rules (particularly those changed on the fly during a weekend that are track specific) need to be disseminated in a way that is fair and foolproof.

XXX

Martin Truex Jr. wasn’t tipping his hand much, but the championship favorite had to be good with the trade he essentially got from the competition during his victory at Kansas.

While it seemed that Kyle Busch and then Jimmie Johnson would be the strongest driver eliminated, that it became Kyle Larson was an outcome that could be abided by Truex (or anyone seeking the title).

Busch has been his strongest rival of late in pure speed, and Johnson is the crafty seven-time (and most recent) champion, but Larson is the unquestioned best of the field at Homestead-Miami Speedway (where he led a race-high 132 laps last season).

The path might not necessarily be easier, but it certainly has gotten clearer – for the first time in the four-year history of this playoff structure, it might be less than even money that the series champion also wins the season finale.

XXX

Social media and the myriad digital channels available for drivers to communicate with the world have been hailed as a godsend for showcasing NASCAR’s emerging personalities.

But this week’s episode of the Glass Case of Emotion podcast put forth an intriguing debate (inadvertently, perhaps).

Is there a threshold on how much fans need to know about their heroes? Or is there a generational divide in which the younger set puts no boundaries on the benefits of sharing?

As the Millennial wave begins its takeover of the Cup Series in earnest, that question probably will get answered (perhaps in overly abundant detail).

XXX

Speaking of podcasts, Toyota Racing Development technical director Andy Graves was the guest on the latest NASCAR on NBC episode. Beyond some engrossing tales of life as Jeff Gordon’s roommate for several years (just as both were starting out in NASCAR), Graves also shared some good insight on how he and TRD have gotten Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing to work together so seamlessly.

“To get everyone working together is extremely difficult,” Graves said on the podcast. “It’s fortunate we have so many great people at TRD on the vehicle side and on the engine side, and the teams have great people, but to get them to all click together … everything today is a compromise. In 1991 and ’92, you could find a new part and bolt it on the car and it was worth two 10ths of a second, and it never hurt any other area of the car. Today every decision you make is a gain in one area, and it will hurt two to three other areas. Every decision is, ‘What is the best compromise at this point?’

“We’re making decisions together, and it’s OK if we’re willing to put this part on the car and it’s going to hurt power but help mechanical grip. If it’s faster on the stopwatch, let’s do it and we’ll take it on the chin. Those are very unique situations that don’t happen very often. We have a lot of contributors that just want to win races and are willing to sacrifice individual goals for the good of the team.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.