Welcome back, Matt…it was a short ‘retirement’
Matt Kenseth is officially back in NASCAR.
A year ago he was tearing up the track; boasting a win at Phoenix, two poles, and 18 top 10’s.
He was also carrying around a great big secret: owner Joe Gibbs was moving in another direction with the Toyota team, namely 21-year-old Erik Jones in the seat of what was Kenseth’s ride – skewing younger like so many other race teams in the sport.
Kenseth knew, plenty of folks in and around NASCAR garages knew, but the rest of us didn’t find out for sure until later in the summer. That’s when it was revealed around June that Kenseth wouldn’t have a ride in 2018; at least not with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Turns out, he wouldn’t have one at all.
Heck, Coach Gibbs made quicker roster cuts than that when he was with the Redskins.
While there were plenty of smaller outfits Kenseth could have joined, he sort of became a pariah of the sport as months ticked into weeks, then into days, before he would be making his last go-round – make that go-round-and-round – in a Cup car, because he hadn’t found a ride for 2018.
He called that ‘limbo’ as he felt he was in not quite retirement, but….
“Retirement doesn’t really make a lot of sense in this sport because you don’t officially retire and get a pension,” he said. “It’s not like I didn’t have opportunities, but none of them interested me.”
Enter, ‘The Cat in the Hat’.
Fedora-wearing Jack Roush, whom Kenseth drove from 2001 to 2012, winning a couple of Daytona 500’s and a NASCAR title in 2003, has put him back in a fire suit. In fact, 29 of Kenseth’s career Cup wins have been in cars owned by Roush.
Kenseth’s return will be in the No. 6 Ford where he’ll be splitting the rest of this Cup season with Roush driver Trevor Bayne. It’s expected to be a majority of the 23 races remaining beginning with his debut in Kansas on May 12, and that list may or may not include the exhibition races coming up in Charlotte.
Wednesday at the return announcement, interestingly held at the NASCAR Hall-of-Fame in Charlotte, Kenseth unveiled the car along with another fellow on hand to welcome him back: the former occupant of that seat: Mark Martin. After the unveiling, Martin called Kenseth his “favorite driver of all time”. Pretty heady stuff.
I read there were five reasons NASCAR and its fans should be happy that Kenseth’s returned to racing.
First, is his subtle, but brilliant, sense of humor, considered quirky in some circles. Dale Jr. says it’s because he’s from Wisconsin. And here I thought all that cheese just gave you gas.
Secondly, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. After all, Carl Edwards did Olympic caliber back-flips after he won races; Kenseth just keeps it to burnouts. Nice, smoky, sometime boring, burnouts.
Thirdly, he’s now seeing his career come full circle. I’m not going to put him up there with the Prodigal Son from Scripture but getting a sweet Cup ride like he did can compare with his Daddy slaying the fattest calf; and you can’t have a better homecoming than that.
Fourth, he is once again the oldest active driver in the garage; giving Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick – who’re both four years younger than Kenseth at 42 – a reason to fire up those extra candles on the birthday cake.
And, finally, he gives older drivers another shot at taking a checkered flag. I got a little concerned seeing 27-year-old Austin Dillon win Daytona, followed by 24-year-old Darrell Wallace, then 25-year-old Chris Buescher, if you’re getting my drift. Shucks, Kyle Busch won’t turn 33 until next month.
I know it’s only been a couple of days, but I think there’s an upbeat feeling in the Roush Fenway garages in Concord. Kenseth admits he didn’t completely get away from the sport, admitting to watching every Cup race this season on TV.
In the meantime, Roush and crew head to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend with the defending race champion – no, not Bayne, but the other Roush racer: Ricky Stenhouse. Maybe with an old dog back on the porch, still revving to go, they’ll be heading to a few more tracks as champs.
As Martin said at the ‘resurrection’, “Just because you walk away from the race car for a while doesn’t mean you’re done forever.”
Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7211.