Matt Kenseth discusses his surprising return: ‘I’m super excited’

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If you had asked Matt Kenseth three weeks ago if he ever would race again?

“I probably would have told you no,” Kenseth told NBC Sports. “You just never know what life is going to throw at you.”

On Monday, it delivered one of the biggest stunners of the 2020 NASCAR season, which remains on hold because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

When it resumes (perhaps as early as the third week in May), Kenseth will be racing in NASCAR’s premier series for the first time since the 2018 season finale.

Chip Ganassi Racing announced the 2003 champion as the replacement for Kyle Larson in the No. 42 Chevrolet for the rest of the year. Team owner Chip Ganassi told NBCSports.com that the deal so far is for the rest of the season.

MORE: Highlights of Matt Kenseth’s career 

After he didn’t get quite the send-off he’d wanted in 2017 with Joe Gibbs Racing and in a partial season return to Roush Fenway Racing in 2018, Kenseth, 48, said he’s “really, really excited about” his third chance at a fitting ending to his Hall of Fame career.

“I almost feel like when I started racing for some reason,” he told NBC Sports. “So I’m super excited about it. I’m ready to get to the track.

“Kyle is an extremely, extremely talented driver. Way more talent than I ever had, so I know I’m going to have to work really hard at this and give it 100 percent and hopefully we’ll get some results.”

During a phone interview Monday afternoon with NBC Sports, Kenseth discussed the reasons he’s returning, his expectations for performance and what he’s looking forward to the most about being back in a Cup car for the first time in 18 months.

Q: How did it all come together?

Kenseth: “(Chip Ganassi Racing executive) Max Jones called me a couple of times and talked about it a little bit. I wasn’t really thinking about it. It wasn’t really on my radar. I was just hanging out there kind of doing my thing. Being kind of stuck around the house the last couple of months and trying to figure out the schooling and do all that with all the kids really. Kind of going about our time and wasn’t even thinking about it.

“Then after Max called, we thought about it for two days, and I kind of called him back and said I was serious and to see what were they thinking. (Wife) Katie and I just talked about it a lot and looked at what the possible schedule might be. We could maybe get a lot of racing in a shorter period of time. Maybe not be gone from home quite as much as if it was a normal full schedule. So I think there was a lot of reasons and it was a unique opportunity. Unexpected. And it came at a good time for me. I was definitely ready to go do something.

“They have competitive cars, good equipment. I love working with Kurt. There’s just a lot of things about it that attracted me to it.”

Q: The schedule apparently might have a lot of races in driving distance and one-day shows. Did that make it more attractive to you spending less time on the road and more at home with family?

Kenseth: “I haven’t really seen much there. I’m just assuming every week that clicks by that we don’t run a race, I’m just assuming they’ll try to run more races per week in a shorter schedule until everything hopefully gets opened up again eventually. Maybe it won’t be like that, but I just assume there’ll be more racing in a shorter period of time. And a lot less to go with it, I would think, aside from the competition part.”

Q: What had you been doing during the past six weeks and prior to all of that, too?

Kenseth: “We went to Colorado skiing, which we always do over Presidents’ Day weekend. Went out there for a week, then we got home and went to school, and the kids were supposed to have spring break so we could go to Florida to visit (son) Ross and his family and my dad. We actually were getting ready to leave, and everything started getting worse, and stuff started getting somewhat locked down with travel advisories and all that. We decided to just stay home until everything cleared up, and I guess we’re still doing that.

“It’s not boring around here! There’s three of them we’re trying to do their schoolwork with them, and then Mallory is 2, so she’s just wide open all the time. So it’s been really fun. Katie’s been doing extremely well as teacher, housekeeper, cook and all that. I’m not a lot of help. I really try, but I’m not much help. So it’s been pretty busy.

“But the good part about all this for us, there’s a lot of bad things going on, but the good part for us is it’s been great family time. I think we’re all ready for it to open up and for our kids to be able to play sports again and see their friends and go do all that stuff, but it’s been quite a while now. It has been good family time. We’re a little past eight weeks we’ve all been together here, and the kids are doing really well.”

Q: How long do you want to continue driving? Would you drive beyond the 2020 season?

Kenseth: “I can’t tell you that for sure. If you’d have called me three weeks ago and said, ‘Do you think you’ll ever race again?’ I probably would have told you no. You just never know what life is going to throw at you. It was just honestly for a lot of different reasons. Just the right opportunity at the right time. I’m actually really, really excited about it. I almost feel like when I started racing for some reason. So I’m super excited about it. I’m ready to get to the track. There’s a lot of unknowns. So you never really know. Who knows? Things can just go way greater than you think, and they want to keep you around for a while, and you want to do it some more. Or maybe not. I just can’t really predict what’s going to happen. I hoping for the best, and I’ll work as hard as I can.

“Kyle is an extremely, extremely talented driver. Way more talent than I ever had, so I know I’m going to have to work really hard at this and give it 100 percent and hopefully we’ll get some results.”

Q: But you can win with this car?

Kenseth: “Yeah, I hope so. That’s the plan. It sure looks like it. It runs pretty well. Kurt’s won a race over the past year and been pretty competitive, so yeah. I feel like they’ve got fast cars. I’ve watched Chad (Johnston) for quite a while, and he’s a great crew chief. I feel like that will be a good fit.

“If I didn’t think I could go and be competitive and have things go right and have a shot maybe to win, if I didn’t think any of that, I just wouldn’t do it. For me, it was an opportunity to get in what I feel like is good equipment and go totally commit to the rest of the season, whatever that’s going to look like, and go try to get some results and try to get back to having that feeling of being competitive and having fun with the guys.”

Q: Kurt Busch, your new teammate, is a good friend of yours back to the Roush days. Have you talked to him?

Kenseth: “I talked to Kurt a few times on the phone. Just had a few discussions, just had some questions for him on some things, so yeah. That’s part of the allure as well. Kurt was a great teammate when he started at Roush. I’ve always said he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of really good teammates. Kurt as a teammate is always very unselfish. He always works really, really hard at it. Puts in the extra time. Asks the questions. Gives his input. Does all the things that you really appreciate as a teammate. So I know he’s going to help me a lot. Especially when I first get started here and hopefully get up to speed sooner than later. And hopefully once we get this thing rolling, I can reciprocate and help him as well. I am looking forward to that. It’s certainly a part of it.

Q: You said there were unknowns. Is the biggest unknown the lower horsepower, high downforce package that NASCAR switched to in Cup last year?

Kenseth: “It’s a whole different team. I’ve never worked with Chad before. I know there’ll be some challenges for him. Most people that work with me the first few times can’t understand me on the radio. Which is an issue. Sometimes got to have a translator, I feel like. (laughs). I know Tony Raines, I used to race with him a little bit and known him a long time, but I’ve never worked with him as a spotter. So I have to get used to that. And never being in those cars.

“I think the biggest challenge, especially (if) we don’t have practice to get going, not only is just the car and how it’s going to drive. Chad doesn’t necessarily know what I like compared to Kyle, our setups or whatever. Just making sure everything fits right, and you’re comfortable. Just to jump in without practice and not be in the car a year and a half and go out and run 400, 500 miles at a tougher track is a tall order. So we’ll have to spend some time to make sure we feel good about the driver comfort stuff and all that and spend as much time as we can together just talking together and looking at notes and data. I’ve never drove the low-power package so I need to look at data and work with Kurt as much as I can to understand it best I can before I get there.”

Q: When you went out in 2017, it didn’t end the way you wanted because of circumstances beyond your control. In 2018, you improved the No. 6 but didn’t quite run at the front as you’d hoped in the return to Roush Fenway Racing. Does this opportunity at Ganassi give you a chance to go out the way you’d like and to do it as a winner and championship contender?

Kenseth: “Yeah, I hope so. You can’t predict the future or change the past, but I hope so. All those situations were different. There wasn’t anything for me after ’17 at JGR and basically getting replaced by Erik (Jones). I was glad I went back and raced for Jack (Roush). I understood there was going to be some challenges there. I was going there understanding that and understanding most likely we weren’t going to be a contender for a win, especially if it was just going to be a part-time, one-year deal. I was going to help the organization some and maybe be part of it.

“So that was a different role. I’m still glad I did it in that role. Unless you can make a lot of headway, it’s probably not a role I wanted to be in again. So if this would have been something where (Ganassi) was in a rebuilding process or something like that, I don’t think that’s the challenge I’m looking for anymore. But since it’s an established team, and they’re very competitive, and through those circumstances that Kyle’s not there anymore, they have this really competitive team that just needs a driver in there. That was very appealing. You have to make things better, but I don’t feel like there’s something that needs to be rebuilt or is much of a project. I feel like they’re looking for me to come in and be competitive, and I’m going in there looking to get in cars that are capable of running toward the front and putting in solid efforts every week.”

Q: What are you looking forward to the most aside from racing and possibly winning again?

Kenseth: “The thing I miss the most about racing is the team members and the relationships that you build. Through the years, you have some team members you really enjoyed working with, and I really miss working with your crew chief and having that urgency with your engineers to try to figure out the next thing. Watching your car chief and mechanics try to get the next change in just in time to go out and see if it’s going to be better. I miss all that stuff. Just trying to be the best racing against the best drivers and teams every week.

“To be part of that group and try to be one of the links in the chain to have a competitive or winning effort, that’s the part I miss the most. I don’t necessarily miss the driving the most. All the stuff you’d think you’d miss, just going back and driving, that’s not really what I miss the most. I miss just being part of it. That’s my part of the bargain is just being part of that team and being part of something competitive and just trying to be great.”