Sad, but true: Matt Kenseth stepping away in 2018

Matt Kenseth in driver intros for the AAA Texas 500 Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017.
photo: Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs

by Lisa Janine Cloud

He didn’t hold a press conference to make an official announcement.

He didn’t spend the year on a farewell or appreciation tour.

There were no buildings on the Dallas -- or any other -- skyline lit with the No. 20.

Yet when the green flag flies at Daytona in February 2018, like his rival for the 2000 NASCAR Rookie of the Year, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth won’t be behind the wheel of a racecar.

If Earnhardt Jr.’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career is ending with a whimper rather than a bang, to borrow a phrase from Reuters writer Lewis Franck, then Kenseth’s is ending with a whisper.

And that's a cryin' shame.

In his typical understated fashion, Kenseth revealed Saturday that he is no longer actively seeking a ride for 2018. During a podcast with Nate Ryan of NBC Sports, Kenseth said that after his elimination from playoff contention at Martinsville and a great deal of thought, he decided to step away from driving in NASCAR beginning in 2018.

 “I don’t know what that means," Kenseth said. "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."

In July, Joe Gibbs Racing, where Kenseth has spent the last five seasons, announced that Erik Jones would be driving the No. 20 car in 2018. JGR made the move to protect their asset, Jones, when it became apparent that fielding Jones’ No. 77 at Furniture Row Racing would not happen in 2018.

Team owner Joe Gibbs said at the time, “When a number of circumstances made it clear over the past few weeks that a second year for the 77 car was probably not viable at this time for Erik, we all agreed that we wanted to keep him in the Toyota racing family and felt it was the right time to make this transition. He is an exciting driver that has already proven to have the ability to compete at the highest level of our sport. He is also shown to be a great representative to our partners, and we believe he is at the beginning of a long and successful career.”

The move, however, left the 2005 MENCS champion without a seat in the four-car organization, despite being having earned 13 of his 38 career wins for JGR. Still, Kenseth showed an almost unbelievable amount of focus, finishing third at New Hampshire that weekend and making it as far as the second round of the playoffs in what the Wisconsin native described as “a really long and frustrating season on many levels.”

While he’s not officially retiring, like his former teammate Carl Edwards, he’s also not ruling out driving again if the right opportunity presents itself. Unlike Edwards, the decision is not one he would have made for himself had he been able to secure a competitive ride.

“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,” Kenseth explained.

“I’m not committing to anything for 2018. I’m just gonna – I don’t know, I mean the retirement word doesn’t really make a lot of sense in this sport really because there’s, it’s not like the NFL where you get a pension if you officially retire or you do any of that stuff. Mostly it’s for people like Jr. that got to fill the seat and have a sponsor and all that stuff. For me it’s just different because I didn’t really have that option. My seat got filled before any of that so there’s really no reason to talk about it.”

Kenseth deflected when asked about talks with other team owners.

“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.”

That’s vintage Kenseth right there. A class act all the way. He may not like what happened, but stirring up controversy about other teams won’t change it, so why drop names?

“I’ll just take some time off, whatever that means. I don’t know if that’s a year, two years, three months, four months, I mean you never know what happens. Maybe something comes along that really makes you excited, and it feels like it’s going to be a fit, you might go do. Certainly not gonna rule that out, but for now, I’m not making any plans for 2018. I just plan on having some time off.”

Kenseth and daughters at Charlotte Motor Speedway
photo: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs  

Kenseth and his wife, Katie, are reported to be expecting their fourth child next month.

“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.

Whether Kenseth ever starts another Cup race after the 2017 season, one thing is clear: With a pair of Daytona 500 trophies alongside his Cup championship, combined with 38 Cup and 29 Xfinity series wins, he’s a lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Sad, but true: Matt Kenseth stepping away in 2018 Sad, but true: Matt Kenseth stepping away in 2018 Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Monday, November 06, 2017 Rating: 5