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.
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