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.”

Milestones in reach for NASCAR Cup drivers in 2023

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While the countdown to the start of the 2023 NASCAR season in February continues, here’s a look at some of the milestones Cup drivers could reach in the upcoming season:

AJ Allmendinger

Allmendinger returns to drive the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing in 2023. He’s scheduled to make his 400th career Cup start March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, a race he nearly won last year.

Aric Almirola

Almirola is 26 laps away from leading 1,000 laps in his Cup career.

Ryan Blaney 

Blaney is scheduled to make his 300th career Cup start Sept. 24 at Texas in the playoffs. Texas was the site of his last Cup win, which came in the All-Star Race in May.

Chase Briscoe

Briscoe is scheduled to make his 100th career Cup start Sept. 10 at Kansas in the playoffs.

Kyle Busch 

Busch needs one win to set the NASCAR record for most consecutive seasons with a win. He is tied with Richard Petty with 18 entering the 2023 season, which will see Busch drive for Richard Childress Racing.

Busch is 92 laps away from leading 19,000 laps in his Cup career.

He is 34 starts away from tying Dale Earnhardt Sr. for 23rd on the all-time list of most career starts at 676. Busch is scheduled to tie Earnhardt’s mark Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the playoffs and surpass the mark the next weekend at Martinsville Speedway in the playoffs.

William Byron 

Byron is scheduled to make his 200th career Cup start July 16 at New Hampshire.

Chase Elliott

Elliott is a win from scoring a victory in six consecutive Cup seasons.

He is 100 laps away from leading 5,000 in his Cup career.

Justin Haley

Haley is scheduled to make his 100th career Cup start Sept. 10 at Kansas in the playoffs.

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin is two wins away from 50 career Cup wins. That would tie him with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 13th on the all-time victory list. 

Kevin Harvick

Harvick is scheduled to make his 800th career Cup start April 23 at Talladega.

He is 15 starts from tying Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list for most career Cup starts at 805. Harvick is scheduled to tie Gordon’s mark June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway and is scheduled to move ahead of Gordon on June 11 at Sonoma.

Harvick is 99 laps away from leading 16,000 laps in his Cup career.

He is five top fives away from having 250 in his Cup career.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski is scheduled to make his 500th career Cup start June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway.

He is 93 laps away from 9,000 career laps led in Cup.

Kyle Larson

Larson is scheduled to make his 300th career Cup start March 19 at Atlanta.

He is four top 10s away from 150 career top 10s.

Joey Logano

Logano is one win from having a Cup victory in 12 consecutive seasons, which would tie him for 13th on the all-time list with Denny Hamlin.

Logano is one top five away from 150 career top-five finishes.

He is nine starts away from tying Richard Petty for 19th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 513. Logano is scheduled to reach that mark April 16 at Martinsville and surpass it April 23 at Talladega.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick is nine top 10s away from 50 career top 10s.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse is scheduled to make his 400th career start in the season finale at Phoenix.

He is five top 10s away from 50 career Cup top 10s.

Daniel Suarez

Suarez is one top 10 away from 50 career top 10s in Cup.

Martin Truex Jr.

Truex is 16 starts from tying Jeff Burton for 10th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 628. Truex is scheduled to reach that mark at June 11 at Sonoma and surpass it June 25 at Nashville.

Bubba Wallace

Wallace is scheduled to make his 200th Cup start June 25 at Nashville.

Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023

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Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers

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Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

MORE: Will Kyle Busch follow footsteps of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.

 

 

Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing

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Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 24 truck full-time for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023, the team announced Tuesday.

The 20-year-old Caruth ran a full season in the ARCA Menards Series last year, placing third in points. He also made seven Xfinity starts and four Truck starts last year. 

“I am extremely honored, and really excited to join GMS Racing and be in the fold of a professional race team with so much history,” Caruth said in a statement from the team. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this throughout my whole career, and I’m going to do the best in my power to make the most of it.

“First and foremost, I can’t thank everybody at GMS enough for believing in me and believing that I have what it takes to drive one of their trucks. Same goes for everybody at Chevrolet for their support, we truly wouldn’t be able to make this happen without them. 

Caruth joins Grant Enfinger and Daniel Dye as GMS Racing’s full-time Craftsman Truck Series drivers. Chad Walter will be Caruth’s crew chief. Jeff Hensley will be Enfinger’s crew chief. Travis Sharpe will be Dye’s crew chief. 

The primary partner on Caruth’s truck will be the Wendell Scott Foundation. The foundation, named for the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, seeks to provide resources and services to underprivileged Black youth communities near Scott’s hometown of Danville, Virginia. Since the foundation’s formation in 2011, more than 25 students have been awarded more than $50,000 from the Wendell Scott Legacy Scholarship programs.

“We are excited for Rajah to compete full-time with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023,” said Dayne Pierantoni, GM Racing Program Manager for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Through Chevrolet’s partnership with Rev Racing, we have been impressed with Rajah’s talent both on and off the track. He has proven his ability to compete at the NASCAR national level, and we look forward to seeing his continued success with a series championship winning team.”

The Truck season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. 

In other Truck Series news:

Dean Thompson will drive the No. 5 for TRICON Garage this coming season. The 21-year-old was a rookie in the series this past season. He had a season-best finish of 11th at Las Vegas.

“I am thrilled to start the next chapter of my career with TRICON Garage and Toyota Racing Development,” Thompson said in a statement from the team. “The team and manufacturer have quickly made a statement in the Truck Series as striving to be the best of the best. I’m ready to take on the challenge and live up to the expectations of being a driver for TRICON.”

McAnally Hilgemann Racing announced Tuesday that Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia will drive full-time in the Truck series for the team next season.

Eckes, who will drive the No. 19 truck, moves over from ThorSport Racing. Garcia will drive the No. 35 truck in pursuit of the series Rookie of the Year award.

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

Garcia is 17 and is scheduled to make his first start March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Because of NASCAR’s age restrictions, he will miss the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team’s Daytona driver has not been announced.