Posted: 8:25 am Monday, November 6th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
The inevitable is in the light. The light is at the end of the tunnel and it’s getting bigger. As long as Matt Kenseth didn’t actually say he was stepping away from racing, there was a chance that a ride and a sponsor would appear. But barring something unforeseen, which technically could happen, 45-year-old Matt Kenseth’s last race as a full-time driver will be the November 19th season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. While one of his peers gets crowned a champion, Kenseth will fade into the sunset. The 2003 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champ will walk away in the shadow of both the new champion and retiring titan Dale Earnhardt Jr. But this is mostly his style.
Keneth’s Xfinity Series career ran shotgun to Earnhardt Jr., as Earnhardt won both the 1998 and 1999 championships – Kenseth finished 2nd and 3rd those years. They both entered the full-time Cup ranks in 2000, with Earnhardt Jr. absorbing the attention and getting more wins. But Kenseth won also and eventually became Rookie of the Year.
Earnhardt Jr. has had a mercurial career, filled with winless droughts, glory, a near-championship, two Daytona 500s, extreme fandom, his legendary father’s death, and family drama. Kenseth certainly has made headlines, but his biggest legacy has been steadily driving his win total to 38 in Cup. He has two Daytona 500s, a Coca-Cola 600, a Southern 500, several Bristol night race wins, one at Talladega, and the 2003 championship.
Kenseth leaves a legacy of a blue collar midwesterner – a quintessential Wisconsinan short track racer, who clawed his way to the big time. He’s known for his dry humor and not for being a cultural icon, like Earnhardt Jr. This is why Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s long-reigning Most Popular Driver, had to have a farewell tour. Kenseth fittingly didn’t get to.
In a moment of prophecy earlier this season, Kenseth, when asked about the changing of the guard to the younger drivers, said that it’s all great – unless you are the guard that is being changed. Unlike the other champs that have recently retired before him – Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart – Kenseth didn’t really choose his closing note. Joe Gibbs Racing’s choice to put young Erik Jones in the No. 20 car left Kenseth with no ride and no other takers at his asking price. When he broke the news of his stepping away to NBC’s Nate Ryan, he expressed some disappointment that he didn’t get to completely choose his exit and the others did. That doesn’t seem right for a driver of his credibility.
Kenseth was a pillar of the mighty Roush Racing team of the early 2000s with teammates Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Jeff Burton. Ironically enough, only Martin truly exited on his own terms and he even admitted that he waited too long to retire. Edwards surprisingly retired after the 2016 season with no big fan farewell. Biffle parted ways with Roush and didn’t take another ride, as he had struggled the past few seasons and didn’t have full sponsorship. Burton got replaced at Richard Childress Racing and only raced four more races after that. Both Burton and Martin’s last-career Cup races were filling-in for an injured Stewart. By the way, Kurt Busch was part of that fierce five-car Roush team and he is hanging in the wind for 2018 also.
But Kenseth at least has the wisdom to quit while he is competitive. While he does say that this has been his least favorite season of his career, Kenseth is not going to acquiesce and go to a semi-competitive team just to drive. Kenseth is not quitting in the way Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, or David Pearson did, toiling in the back of the pack. Injuries aren’t sending Kenseth away, as they did for Bobby Allison. He may not have the storybook ending, but Kenseth is still quitting with dignity and some glory. He won’t get the palm parade and all the cool gifts, but he will retire as one of the greatest and not far removed from his winning ways.