Matt Kenseth feels a mix of dis­ap­point­ment and relief as he pre­pares to leave NASCAR

Cecil Whig - - NASCAR -

(TNS) — Matt Kenseth has al­ways been a “take it in stride” kind of guy, and he in­sists that’s the way he’s look­ing at the lat­est turn in his rac­ing ca­reer, even if it’s the last one.

No, of course, this isn’t how Kenseth would have drawn up his de­par­ture from NASCAR. And yes, of course, he is dis­ap­pointed he’s step­ping away in two weeks be­cause there are no op­por­tu­ni­ties for him. But, this is his re­al­ity. “I wish things would have worked out dif­fer­ently or got han­dled dif­fer­ently or all that kind of stuff, or (I) could have fin­ished (my) ca­reer there or at least had the op­por­tu­nity to an­other year or two,” Kenseth said Mon­day. “That part, I’d be ly­ing if I said I wasn’t re­ally dis­ap­pointed the way that all went down.

“But other than that, no. Prob­a­bly Au­gust or so I 80 or 90 per­cent ac­cepted it. You have to em­brace it and have to make the most of it.”

Kenseth, the 2003 cham­pion and a two-time Day­tona 500 win­ner, said pub­licly for the first time Satur­day he would step away from NASCAR at the end of this sea­son. If a top-notch op­por­tu­nity came along, he’d cer­tainly be in­ter­ested, but at age 45 he re­ally isn’t ex­pect­ing that ei­ther.

Kenseth has two races _ Sun­day in Phoenix and the Mon­ster En­ergy NASCAR Cup fi­nale in Homestead, Fla., a week later _ to add to a re­sume that in­cludes 38 vic­to­ries and 20 poles, 180 top-five fin­ishes and 235 top10s in the top divi­sion. The first of those wins came in a crown jewel event, the 2000 Coca-Cola 600, and with his two Day­tona 500s vic­to­ries and a South­ern 500, he won three of NASCAR’s four crown jew­els.

If noth­ing comes along af­ter this sea­son, Kenseth will fin­ish a ca­reer that be­gan in 1998 with 650 starts in NASCAR’s top divi­sion.

Joe Gibbs Rac­ing an­nounced this sum­mer that 21-year-old Erik Jones would re­place Kenseth in the No. 20 Toy­ota.

“Man, I’m a su­per-blessed guy,” Kenseth said in his first com­ments with re­porters in his home state. “I’ve had an awe­some ca­reer for a lot of years. I’ve been in good cars with good peo­ple my whole en­tire ca­reer.

“Got to work with a lot great peo­ple, got a great fam­ily at home, got a lot to look for­ward to look­ing for­ward. There’s noth­ing to be too dis­ap­pointed or up­set about. At the end of the day, JGR did ex­actly what they com­mit­ted to, and so did I.”

Kenseth said he be­gan to see the hand­writ­ing on the wall as Gibbs and Toy­ota worked with Fur­ni­ture Row Rac­ing to build a sec­ond Cup team for Jones to team with Mar­tin Truex Jr. this sea­son.

Kenseth was still hope­ful of find­ing a spot with a win­ning team un­til late this sum­mer when Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports hired 24-yearold Alex Bow­man and 19-year-old Wil­liam By­ron for its two open­ings next year.

“There’s prob­a­bly op­por­tu­ni­ties to go do some­thing if you want to just want to go do some­thing, but I’ve been for­tu­nate through­out my ca­reer that I’ve felt the top teams all wanted me and wanted me to be over there and do all that,” Kenseth said.

“July or Au­gust, that’s when I prob­a­bly knew in my heart it prob­a­bly wasn’t meant to be to con­tinue rac­ing at this level.”

Over the past four years, Kenseth has seen many of his peers bow out.

Jeff Bur­ton, one of Kenseth’s first NASCAR Cup Se­ries team­mates and a long­time friend, an­nounced in 2013 he’d be head­ing for the TV booth. He was 46 at the time.

Four-time cham­pion Jeff Gor­don said in Jan­uary 2015 that the sea­son would be his farewell tour. He did race in NASCAR again, al­though those eight starts in 2016 were as a fill-in for in­jured Dale Earn­hardt Jr. Gor­don was 45 when he stepped out of a stock car for the fi­nal time.

Then three-time cham­pion Tony Ste­wart said late in 2015 that 2016 would be his fi­nal year. Ste­wart was the driver Kenseth beat for his first vic­tory in what was then the NASCAR Busch Se­ries in 1998. He’s older than Kenseth, but just by 10 months.

Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Rac­ing team­mate Carl Ed­wards abruptly called a news con­fer­ence in Jan­uary and re­vealed he was step­ping away from NASCAR at age 37.

And fi­nally Earn­hardt, who had been plagued by con­cus­sions, an­nounced in April he’d run through the end of this sea­son, with a few ex­cep­tions to fill pre­vi­ous com­mit­ments. Earn­hardt will turn 44 this week.

“When you see a bunch of driv­ers that are close to your age ... start re­tir­ing, you think more about it,” Kenseth said. “But on the other hand, when you see those peo­ple re­tir­ing I prob­a­bly felt bet­ter about job se­cu­rity and get­ting to drive a top-notch car, es­pe­cially as long as I was run­ning good, just be­cause a lot of the good driv­ers and the le­gends and stuff were leav­ing.

“Hy­po­thet­i­cally that should leave more seats, but it didn’t work out that way.”

It’s not com­pletely ac­cu­rate to say Kenseth held off say­ing any­thing about 2018 un­til last week be­cause he was in de­nial. Short of a com­plete re­tire­ment or a new ride, there’s no tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit to say­ing any­thing one way or an­other.

Kenseth has felt a cer­tain sense of relief hav­ing pub­licly ad­mit­ted what he had an­tic­i­pated for a year and, re­al­is­ti­cally, had ac­cepted late in the sum­mer.

“You kind of get tired of be­ing at the track and peo­ple ask­ing, ‘Do you have a ride for next year?’ and (about) what you’re do­ing next year,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to clean that up be­fore the end of the year, and I think it’s nice for your fans.

“I’ve had a lot of friends and fam­ily lately come to the race­track ... try­ing to come and see the last few races and stuff. So part of it is nice, to get it out there and get rid of the in­de­ci­sion and think­ing about it all the time.”

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