Kenseth has no re­grets over end of the ride with Gibbs

Lodi News-Sentinel - - Quick Hits - By Dan Gel­ston

LOUDON, N.H. — Matt Kenseth knows his NASCAR ca­reer will soon fade to black.

But the same week he was given a pink slip by Joe Gibbs Rac­ing, Kenseth hit the road for a Me­tal­lica con­cert in­stead of pound­ing the pave­ment to find a ride in 2018.

“Ac­tu­ally made me feel 20 again for about four hours, which was pretty fun,” Kenseth said.

If Kenseth ac­tu­ally was 20, he’d be an in-de­mand driver for a Cup Se­ries rapidly un­der­go­ing a chang­ing of the guard. Young is cool. And for a sport des­per­ately angling to hook a new gen­er­a­tion of fans, 20-some­thing driv­ers such as Chase El­liott, Kyle Lar­son and Erik Jones could lead the charge into the next decade and be­yond. Some of that evo­lu­tion comes at the ex­pense of vet­eran driv­ers such as Kenseth, the 2003 Cup cham­pion and a two-time Day­tona 500 cham­pion, who got the of­fi­cial news this week he was out at JGR at the end of the sea­son.

The 21-year-old Jones will take Kenseth’s job in the No. 20 Toy­ota. Jones is on a one-year loaner con­tract to Gibbs’ sis­ter team Fur­ni­ture Row Rac­ing, and Gibbs had to put Jones some­where in 2018.

Kenseth’s fate had been in limbo — though it seemed ob­vi­ous Jones was be­ing groomed for the ride — and Gibbs made the trans­ac­tion com­plete, leav­ing the 45-year-old driver with­out a car next year.

“I’m just glad they fi­nally put it out so I don’t have to pre­tend any­more,” Kenseth said at New Hamp­shire Mo­tor Speedway. “Ev­ery­body can ask you about it, ev­ery­body can move on and get back to rac­ing.”

Kenseth, who qual­i­fied third at New Hamp­shire, said Fri­day he had no hard feel­ings to­ward the or­ga­ni­za­tion and has no con­cerns about his fu­ture. He also has no timetable for a de­ci­sion but there are few op­tions.

The best bet could be a one-year land­ing spot at Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports driv­ing the No. 88 Chevro­let. Dale Earn­hardt Jr.’s ride will be open once he re­tires at the end of the sea­son. Team owner Rick Hen­drick has promis­ing prospect Wil­liam By­ron, a 19year-old Xfin­ity Se­ries driver, and could con­sider Alex Bow­man fol­low­ing a solid stint sub­bing last sea­son for the in­jured Earn­hardt.

Seven-time cham­pion Jim­mie John­son said spon­sor­ship dol­lars would likely dic­tate who gets the cov­eted ride. John­son, who will have a vote on his new team­mate, also said Kenseth has the re­sume that will earn him a ride some­where next sea­son.

“Matt’s just too good,” he said. “The guy can win races and cham­pi­onships and that won’t be over­looked. But I do feel Matt’s at a point in his ca­reer where he just won’t take any ride.”

Kenseth has won 16 races over five sea­sons with JGR and is NASCAR’s old­est full-time driver. He is the vet­eran at Gibbs, which has 2015 cham­pion Kyle Busch, Day­tona 500 win­ner Denny Ham­lin and reign­ing Xfin­ity Se­ries cham­pion Daniel Suarez. Kenseth, 11th in the stand­ings in his 18th Cup sea­son, said he knew for about a year he could be on the way out at JGR.

“I feel like we did a lot of great things,” Kenseth said. “I don’t think there’s any­thing to be bit­ter about or feel bad about. We’re both liv­ing up to the agree­ments we made.”

Out­side of the 88, qual­ity rides are slim for 2018.

“I hope to race next year,” Kenseth said. “I still en­joy rac­ing. I still feel like I could be an as­set to some­body, so I hope so.”

His other op­tions in­clude a bunch of maybes: Hen­drick could cut ties with un­der­achiev­ing Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 and Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing may have two open­ings if Danica Pa­trick and Kurt Busch do not re­turn. NASCAR has al­ready lost vet­eran stars Tony Ste­wart, Jeff Gor­don and Carl Ed­wards over the last three sea­sons and the pop­u­lar Earn­hardt is on his way out.

The new gen­er­a­tion is ready to take over. The cover of the New Hamp­shire race pro­gram shows El­liott and Lar­son in sun­glasses with the head­line “The Fu­ture is Bright: El­liott and Lar­son to Carry NASCAR Torch.”

“NASCAR needs Chase El­liott to win,” 2014 Cup cham­pion Kevin Har­vick said. “Chase El­liott is the tie to the tra­di­tional NASCAR fan. It’s the only shot they’ve got with the tra­di­tional NASCAR fan. His dad. The his­tory and her­itage of the sport. There isn’t any­body else in the lineup that I can think of.”

That in­cludes Lar­son, a dirt tracker from Cal­i­for­nia who will race any­thing at any time. Lar­son turned the fastest qual­i­fy­ing lap for Sun­day’s race at New Hamp­shire be­fore his time was dis­al­lowed for an in­spec­tion fail­ure.

“A dis­tant sec­ond,” Har­vick said. “Dirt rac­ing is great, but they don’t have the fan­base that a NASCAR-type fan­base does to help el­e­vate him be­cause most of those peo­ple aren’t go­ing to go to a NASCAR race.”

Kenseth was once con­sid­ered one of NASCAR’s hottest young driv­ers. He’s now rid­ing out the string, hop­ing for a win and a strong show­ing down the stretch to show­case to other teams he still has some­thing left for next year.

“We’re both go­ing to work as hard as we can to win races, win a cham­pi­onship for JGR,” he said. “Next year doesn’t af­fect any­thing for this year at all. It re­ally doesn’t.”

JEFF SINER/TRIBUNE NEWS SER­VICE

NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth, left, and team owner Joe Gibbs talk in the garage prior to the start of the sec­ond prac­tice at Char­lotte Mo­tor Speedway in Con­cord, N.C., on May 27.

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