Matt Kenseth plans to step away from Cup in 2018: ‘It’s probably time to go do something different’

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FORT WORTH, Texas – After 18 consecutive seasons in Cup, Matt Kenseth said he is taking a break from NASCAR’s premier series after 2017.

In his first expansive comments about the future since the announcement four months ago that he was losing his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth said Saturday during the taping of a NASCAR on NBC podcast episode (which will be posted Sunday) that he will put a two-decade career on hiatus, possibly for good.

“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,” the 2003 series champion 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.

“Really most of my life, everything has been very obvious to me. Moving to Joe Gibbs, everybody was like, ‘Oh that must have been the hardest decision. Actually, it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. Both ends, everything lined up. It lined up to not stay where I was for a whole bunch of different reasons, and it lined up to go over there for a whole bunch of different reasons. It was just like it was really easy. This one, I’ve been fighting it as long as I can, because I’m like, ‘Man, once you’re done doing this, not many of us get to do this, especially at the top level.’ I think I fought it for a long time.

“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. 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.”

Along with Kurt Busch, who said Friday that he remains in negotiations to return with Stewart-Haas Racing next season, Kenseth has been among the top free agents for next year, but his name wasn’t called despite some championship-caliber rides being open.

Stewart-Haas Racing is expected Wednesday to name Aric Almirola to replace Danica Patrick in the No. 10 Ford and seems to be nearing a new deal with Busch. Furniture Row Racing is shelving the No. 77 Toyota of Erik Jones (who is taking Kenseth’s ride at JGR).

Hendrick Motorsports named William Byron, 19, to replace Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 Chevrolet and selected Alex Bowman, 24, as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement in the No. 88 Chevy.

“Probably my biggest clue is when Rick put William in the 5 car, and I didn’t get that opportunity,” Kenseth, 45, said. “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.

“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.’ ”

In the July announcement at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to name Bowman in the No. 88, Hendrick deflected when asked if he had considered putting Kenseth in the car.

Did Kenseth talk with Hendrick about joining his team?

“You know, I’ve talked to him a lot,” Kenseth said. “Probably talked to him 10 times a year, probably more than that. I’ve always got along with him pretty well.

“As far as any conversation with owners or anything, I probably would rather keep that to myself because the more I think about that, it’s not really fair to my peers or the owners, really, because all the cars have drivers in them, so it’s probably easier just to keep them to myself.”

With contemporaries such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving NASCAR with graceful retirement transitions, Kenseth said not getting the same opportunity to exit on his own terms “irritates me a little bit.

“But like I said, I feel like the way things have gone that for whatever reason — reasons I don’t understand that I think will become really, really clear in the future — that it’s just not meant for me to race next year,” he said. “I think it’s that simple. Everything lined up this way because I wasn’t going to make the decision myself, so someone made it for me. It’s just not supposed to happen.”

Kenseth, who has 38 career victories and two Daytona 500 wins, believes he still can win but said he was discriminating in his job search.

“I think I can drive next year if I really wanted to go drive,” the Cambridge, Wisconsin, native said. “But do I just want to drive, or do I want to try to win races and championships?

“I think if any of that stuff was really meant to be, and someone really wanted you to be part of the organization, they would have figured out how to make it happen by now, certainly.”

Unless a top-flight ride somehow were to materialize, Kenseth said he doesn’t anticipate being at the 2018 Daytona 500 or any other race next season.

“I really don’t,” he said. “You never say never. If something came up that felt right, or Coach (Joe Gibbs) had an opportunity come up because of a driver or something —  a good car I felt I could contribute and go win with and was a top team — I probably would seriously entertain that, but other than that, I don’t foresee that.”

If this is the end of the line in Cup for Kenseth, a lot is waiting for him at home.

His wife, Katie, is expecting their fourth child next month. They have three daughters between the ages of 3 and 8, and Kenseth said he was looking forward to spending time “with my kids and be able to do some normal family things.

“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.”

Kenseth is in the midst of a 40-race winless streak dating to July 2016 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but he has two poles this season and made the 2017 playoffs for the 13th time in 14 seasons.

He was eliminated from championship eligibility when his No. 20 Toyota was parked after his team sent too many men over the wall to repair it in the Oct. 22 race at Kansas Speedway.

“The racing end, it’s been a very frustrating and disappointing season from every level,” he said. “Probably the most disappointing season I’ve ever had in my career, to be honest with you. We’ve ran worse before. But this year, for having equipment out of that shop that is capable of winning races and championships, it’s just been a disappointing season to say the least. The hits just keep on coming, even with only three weeks left.”

The latest happened Friday when he consistently ran among the top five speeds in practice but wasn’t able to qualify because his car failed technical inspection too many times.

“I’ve had some really good periods and some bad periods,” Kenseth said. “I’d say this is my worst. I got to take a lot of the blame because I’m the guy driving the race car, but it’s been so self-inflicted. We’ve made so many mistakes as a team.

“We’ve had good days and messed it up with mistakes and have had bad days where we’ve ran terrible and had great pit stops and strategy and don’t make mistakes on pit road or the racetrack. It’s just been something all the time. We haven’t really operated at a high level. It’s been very disappointing.

“In hindsight looking back there’s probably things I could have helped more with or maybe been more of the squeaky wheel and tried to get things rolling better in the right direction and didn’t. I feel like (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) has done a good job of leading the team and figuring out what we need and how to get things turned around. Again, not putting it on him; it’s all of us. We just haven’t been able to turn it around and get the whole group as one unit operating as a championship unit, or even a winning unit. We had a few races we had a good opportunity to win and for whatever reason couldn’t.”

Listen to the full conversation with Kenseth, which posted Sunday.

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 or visiting the www.ApplePodcasts.com/nascaronnbc landing page.

It also is available for subscription on Stitcher or 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.

Martin Truex Jr: ‘I still pinch myself’ three years into dominance with Furniture Row

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As Martin Truex Jr. stood in the back of a truck riding around Kentucky Speedway before last Saturday’s Cup race, a fan called out to the 2017 champion.

“Let somebody else win!” he yelled.

After a beat, Truex responded with a chuckle, “No!”

Truex stayed true to his word. A few hours later, the Furniture Row Racing driver took the checkered flag to claim his fourth win of the season.

His triumph over Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski took his career win total to 19 – tying him on the all-time wins list with Joey Logano, 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Davey Allison, Greg Biffle, Hall of Famer Buddy Baker and Fonty Flock.

The victory is the 17th for the No. 78 team since 2015. Truex leads all drivers in wins since 2016 with 16.

For a driver who only won twice in his first nine full-time seasons, Truex said “I still pinch myself” over his dominance of the sport.

He doesn’t lead the series in wins after 19 races. That goes to Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who are tied at five wins each.

This marks the first time since 1974 that three drivers have won four or more races at this point in a season.

“I think all three of us have great teams,” Truex said after his win. “Those two guys are great drivers. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for them. It’s pretty amazing to be a part of this group, honestly. I think when I was a kid and you (saw) Dale (Earnhardt) and Rusty (Wallace) and guys like that, Terry Labonte and you had guys that just dominated and won everything, and watching them, it was like, ‘Man, that’s so cool, they’re heroes and they’re such a big deal,’ and to think that I’m one of those guys this year and I guess last year, too, is just ‑‑ it’s amazing to me.”

Even after he won his first Cup title last November, it didn’t occur to him until almost a month later that he will one day be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside Earnhardt, Wallace and Labonte.

Truex joined Furniture Row Racing in 2014 after losing his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing, a casualty of the race manipulation scandal involving MWR in the 2013 regular season finale at Richmond Raceway.

That year, Truex went winless, led one lap and finished 24th in the standings.

The following season Truex was paired with rookie crew chief Cole Pearn. The duo won one race, earned eight top fives and made the Championship 4.

In their 126 races together, the duo has put together a record comparable to other great driver-crew chief parings in Cup history.

“Really the last three years have been just having the time of my life and just lucky to have great people around us, a great car owner (Barney Visser),” Truex said. “Just feel really lucky.  I’ve been on the other side of it before where teams were struggling and struggled to get in position to win races, and having a lot of things kind of going against you and kind of fighting that uphill battle.

“So it’s amazing to be on this side of it. I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the guys on our team and what they’ve done, and I honestly just enjoy every single one of these wins like it’s my first because you never know when they’re going to come to an end.  You never know when you’re going to have your last one. You never know what’s going to happen next. Just trying to ride the wave of momentum and enjoy it all, and my team is just so badass, I can’t even explain it.”

Truex, 38, “always felt” he “could get the job done” during the early years of his Cup career, spent with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and then MWR.

“I had enough glimpses of really good days or glimpses of greatness that I think it just kept me alive, kept me hungry enough to keep fighting for it,” said Truex, who won two Xfinity championships before moving to Cup. “I think through the years there was just ‑‑ for me personally, and I don’t know what everybody else thought, I know I had some people that probably didn’t think I was that good.

“That’s part of this deal.  You’re only as good as your last race. And if you’re not getting results now, people question your ability.  … For me personally, I always (felt) like I could be a good driver, be a great driver.  I never knew I’d get to where I was last year, and I never really knew I could go on a championship run and win (16) races in three years … That’s been amazing.”

 

39 Trucks on preliminary entry list for Eldora race

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There are 39 entries for Wednesday night’s Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway.

Ryan Newman and Ty Dillon are the only Cup competitors entered. Newman will drive Jordan Anderson’s No. 3 truck. Dillon will drive for Young’s Motorsports.

Among the drivers entered is 63-year-old John Provenzano, a dirt specialist who will be making his Truck debut. He’ll drive for Mike Affarano Motorsports. USAC National Midgets points leader Logan Seavey will make his Truck debut in a ride with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Dirt modified driver Kyle Strickler will make his Truck debut, driving for MB Motorsports. Dirt modified racer RJ Otto will drive the No. 97 for JJL Motorsports and make his series debut.

The No. 46 truck has been withdrawn.

Matt Crafton won last year’s race. Stewart Friesen was second and Chase Briscoe was third. All three are entered. Briscoe, who has been running in the Xfinity Series, returns to drive the No. 27 for ThorSport Racing.

Click here for preliminary entry list

Race for final Cup playoff spot tightens at Kentucky

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Paul Menard’s 11th-place finish might be easy to overlook but it was one of the noteworthy performances Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Menard’s finish — along with Alex Bowman placing last — allowed Menard to gain 32 points on Bowman in the race for the final playoff spot.

“We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this,” Bowman said after his crash that left him with a 39th-place finish. “This will hurt us quite a bit.”

The result hurt him but maybe not as much as he feared.

Bowman has 427 points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is next at 418 and Menard has 404.

With seven winners this season and seven races left, at least two of the 16 playoff spots will be determined by points.

If the current domination by Kentucky winner Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch continues, there could be a record number of drivers who make the playoffs by points. The most who made the playoffs via points was five in 2015. That seems likely to fall.

While Menard made up many points on Bowman, it still didn’t make up for all the ground Menard lost to Bowman the previous three races. Bowman finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, Chicagoland and Daytona and gained 51 more points than Menard in those races.

Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky. Stenhouse had contact with Jamie McMurary’s car that led to a tire rub and forced Stenhouse to pit on Lap 23 and then again on Lap 27 under green. Stenhouse fell three laps down. He gained two laps back and finished 26th on what could have been a bigger night for him with Bowman’s misfortune.

“I’m not really sure what happened, but the No. 1 got into us, which cut our left rear tire,” Stenhouse said. “We were able to cut our deficit in the point standings. We will focus on the next seven weekends and getting the No. 17 team in the playoffs.”

While Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky, it didn’t overcome what he had lost the three previous races to the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Bowman had scored 15 more points during that stretch.

With Bowman having problems, it created an opening for drivers further back but Richard Childress Racing teammates managed to make only modest gains.

Newman gained 15 points on Bowman and is 79 points back. Dillon gained 14 points on Bowman and is 65 points back. Both Dillon and Newman had vibrations early in the race and that forced them to pit in the first 31 laps under green. Newman was later penalized for removing equipment from the pit stall.

“We definitely improved our qualifying effort, but ultimately it comes down to where we finished and we still have some work to do,” Newman said. “Our car wasn’t that bad, but getting track position after that first run and a pit road penalty were too tough to overcome.”

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Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant win doesn’t discourage competition

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SPARTA, Kentucky — On a night when Martin Truex Jr. exerted his dominance, led nearly two-thirds of the laps, won both stages and then the race, his competitors left Kentucky Speedway with …

Hope.

Even crew chief Cole Pearn’s eyes bulged at the notion.

Truex’s third victory in the past six events should be a sign that his Furniture Row Racing team is primed to repeat last year’s surge when it won six of the final 19 races on the way to winning the championship.

Truex, who started from the pole Saturday, called the weekend his team’s most complete of the season. About the only thing that didn’t go as plan was when Truex needed to jump from his car as it rolled down the frontstretch banking, shortening his victory celebration in front of the fans.

That Truex had such a dominant performance throughout the weekend should be scary to every team that does not employ Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.

Yet runner-up Ryan Blaney, while disappointed he didn’t win, could be upbeat about his team’s run. So was teammate Brad Keselowski. And Kyle Larson, who has been one of the toughest foes to the triumvirate of Truex, Busch and Harvick, also could walk away with some good feelings despite a ninth-place finish.

It would be easy to suggest that they’re merely fooling themselves. Truex, Harvick and Busch finished 1-2-3 in the first stage. Truex won the second stage with Busch second and Harvick fourth. Truex’s victory marked the 13th consecutive race either he, Busch or Harvick have won at a 1.5-mile track.

In a sport where the rules are meant to keep the field close, Truex, Harvick and Busch have separated themselves from everyone else.

But Blaney sees the gap closing.

I wouldn’t say we’re frustrated or defeated,” he said. “I mean, I might be a little down just because I wanted to win the race, but you go back and you realize that you’ve made gains and you’ve just got to keep making those.”

Keselowski, who finished third, interjected: “We can see the end of the tunnel, and we’re just 20 yards away. It’s just a matter of getting there, not taking a step back and taking a step forward.”

Of course, those final steps are the most difficult.

Keselowski is heartened based on how far his team has come.

“We’ve been right in that fifth‑ to six‑place range, but I feel like when they drop the green, the leaders just drive away from us, and this week, at least at the start of the race, we were able to run with Martin,” Keselowski said. “ As the race progressed we couldn’t stay with him, but all in all, that’s still as fast as we’ve been on a mile‑and‑a‑half this year, and that’s something commendable for my team.”

The closer one believes they are to the leaders, the more hope grows.

Larson was encouraged that he passed Truex for second with about 90 laps to go before his trackbar failed and his handling went away.

“I felt like I was better than (Harvick),” Larson said of the fifth-place finisher. “I passed (Busch, who placed fourth) a couple of times, passed (Truex) there before that second to last run. I passed him and kind of drove away from him for a few laps until right when our trackbar broke. Like I said, it’s hard to say if I would have had a shot to win. You never know how these races will play out, but I would have loved to have had a shot.”

Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, was buoyed by his driver’s run until the mechanical issue.

“Those guys are fast, so we’ve just got to keep working hard and try to figure out how to get faster and get faster twice as fast as they do because they’re not stopping,” Johnston told NBC Sports. “But I feel like we’ve closed that gap throughout the year.”

The progress these teams have made has gained the attention of Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers.

Harvick won five of the first 12 races but has seen his advantage slip. He finished fourth at Pocono last month but placed behind Truex, Larson and Busch. Harvick was second to Truex at Sonoma and third to Busch and Larson at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago.

Childers told NBC Sports that he’s been “trying to be as safe as we can” with the car since the team was docked 20 points and all seven playoff points for its stage wins and race victory at Las Vegas in March. NASCAR penalized the team because the rear window did not remain rigid throughout that race.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said.

While he said he felt Harvick was faster than Truex most of Saturday night at Kentucky — the key difference was track position — Childers acknowledged that he might have to adjust his thinking on the car’s setup in the coming weeks.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, (Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been.

“The thing I see with (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

If not, others might pass his car. There’s a group that believes they’re coming.

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