Did You Notice? … Matt Kenseth wanted to make his own decision on retirement? As Silly Season winds down, the 2003 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion finds himself without a chair. Without bringing sponsorship to the table, the future NASCAR Hall of Famer was left with two choices for 2018.
Choice A: Drive for a paycheck, running 25th with an underfunded team that would never have the equipment eligible to compete. (See: Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott post-Evernham Motorsports)
Choice B: Leave the sport with dignity
Kenseth went with choice B, calling it “time off” while making it clear it wasn’t truly his decision to step away. Having made the NASCAR playoffs this season, it’s clear this 45-year-old still has plenty left in the tank.
“Sometimes you can’t make your own decisions, so people make them for you,” he told Nate Ryan of NBC Sports. “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’s hand was in a way you wouldn’t expect for a driver of his caliber. With 38 career victories, he ranks 20th on NASCAR’s all-time list and owns that 2003 season title.
I took a look at all the modern era drivers (1972-present) ranked in front of Kenseth on the win list. A quick analysis of their careers showed most, if not all, walked away on their own terms.
NASCAR All-Time Winners
Richard Petty (200): Full-season retirement tour (1992). Went without a top-10 finish in his final season.
David Pearson (105): A strange case as Pearson never really raced full-time; he earned only one win after getting fired by the Wood Brothers in 1979. Ran his own team in the mid-1980s and stepped back to focus on son Larry’s career.
Jeff Gordon (93): Full-season retirement tour (2015). Made Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway after fall win at Martinsville Speedway.
Darrell Waltrip (84): Full-season retirement tour (2000). Earned a best finish of 11th after a front-row start for the 2000 Brickyard 400.
Bobby Allison (84): Career-ending injury at Pocono just months after winning the 1988 Daytona 500.
Cale Yarborough (83): Retired with own team after 1988 season. Three top-10 finishes in 10 starts at age 49.
Dale Earnhardt (76): Killed in 2001 Daytona 500.
Rusty Wallace (55): Full-season retirement tour (2005). Wallace was eighth in points (making the Chase) with eight top-five finishes at age 48.
Tony Stewart (49): Full-season retirement tour (2016). Stewart made the Chase and won the Sonoma Raceway road course race at age 45.
Bill Elliott (44): Elliott chose to walk away after a one-win season with Dodge in 2003. He nearly won the last race he ever ran full-time, blowing a tire in the final laps at Homestead. Elliott still ran part-time after that, running a few years for the Wood Brothers (among other opportunities), but the initial call to leave came on his own terms.
Mark Martin (40): Martin had a full-season retirement tour twice, unretired, then ran full-time with Hendrick Motorsports for three years. By the time Martin left, at the end of the 2013 season he was ready at age 54 (and still earned one top-five finish that final year).
Still Active: Jimmie Johnson (83), Kyle Busch (43)
Couldn’t Judge (pre-modern era): Lee Petty (54), Ned Jarrett (50) – who did walk away on his own terms, Junior Johnson (50), Herb Thomas (48), Buck Baker (46), Tim Flock (39)
Sensing a pattern with this list? Every driver was either in their prime before tragedy struck or was able to walk away without pressure.
Let’s get to Kenseth.
Matt Kenseth (40): Kenseth wanted to keep racing at age 45, making the NASCAR Round of 12 in the playoffs and likely finishing inside the top 10 in points. But he brought no sponsorship money, and no one wanted to pay the veteran’s salary he commanded.
Kenseth this season has nine top-five finishes, two poles and sits tied for ninth in points. Depending on how the other drivers wind up, he could finish the playoffs as high as sixth or seventh. Add in an average finish of 14.8, and it’s clear Kenseth has plenty to left to give.
How much longer would he have raced full-time? That’s hard to say. But two years in a teaching mode helping young drivers develop could have helped a team like Hendrick. It could have also served as a bridge for Furniture Row Racing, whose second team suspends operations after Homestead in November.
That situation is the most puzzling one. Owner Barney Visser has chosen to close the No. 77 team during a year where the No. 78 may win a championship. Martin Truex Jr. is having a career year while teammate Erik Jones may be Rookie of the Year.
On the sponsorship front, the addition of 5-Hour Energy means the No. 78 is fully sponsored for 2018. Visser’s company, Furniture Row, is no longer needed to pay the bills in any form.
You could also say that opens the company up to back the No. 77. A guy like Kenseth, whose age makes him less attractive to Fortune 500 companies, would be a good fit. If Visser keeps that team going, a guy like Christopher Bell could be only a year or two away. Kenseth in 2018-19, Bell in 2020 as Rookie of the Year and then perhaps the primary driver going forward?
It’s not an inconceivable plan. But Visser was not on board. So Kenseth, whose 2003 title many feel created the current NASCAR playoff system, now will own another dubious distinction.
He’s the best driver pushed out of the sport before it was time.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Five NASCAR playoff drivers will fight for one spot Sunday at Phoenix. But remember the spring race? Brad Keselowski, who holds a 19-point lead over all challengers, was the only one of them to finish inside the top five. Everyone else was anywhere between ninth and 23rd. That suggests to me that, barring a miracle, Keselowski only needs to play defense in order to survive.
- Danica Patrick had a revealing interview on CBSSN’s We Need To Talk. It’s worth a look as you can see an athlete at peace with potentially not being on the track in 2018. I still hear Patrick, her people and the sport behind the scenes are frantically searching for sponsorship. It’s easier to focus there now that Darrell Wallace Jr. is all set up. But the deal I heard about a few weeks ago never fully materialized, and time is not on her side.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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Kenseth is a victim of the downward spiral Nascar is in, a spiral that despite all the nonsensical contrived gimmicks Nascar dreams up continues pretty much unabated. The big money is gone and teams are hiring kids that will work for 1/10th of what guys like Kenseth were getting. So what happens to someone like Larson, who is apparently being paid diddly by Ganassi (he flies economy or bums a ride in someone’s plane to get to the tracks whereas drivers used to have their own corporate jets) and has proven already he’s championship worthy? Is he going to be happy being paid a few hundred grand a year when past champions commanded millions? Not a good situation for drivers, teams and the sport in general when the big heads at Nascar can’t seem to right the ship.
If ratings and attendance don’t go up to make sponsorship more attractive, a few hundred grand a year may be the new norm, at least as a base salary. Hopefully, successful drivers will have clauses in their contract that pay them additionally for success.
As much as I like Kenseth, he’s no longer a young driver. A lot of these drivers came in around the same time, they’ve made their millions and its time to go. Really just the cycle of sports.
I am not a Kenseth fan, but as a NASCAR fan I will be pissed if Danica gets a quality ride and Kenseth is forced to walk away. That would be the ultimate farce. No room for a successful driver but make room for an unsuccessful driver in the name of diversity.
So much for nascar when talented drivers are sent home and no or low talent drivers are promoted due to sponsor dollars. How many of the sponsor decision makers watch nascar races? So they have no clue what the history of entertaining races vs. what they call a race today. From an ex nascar fan (50 years).
Maybe Kenseth is paying the price for Martinsville.
Certainly took him off the table for any Ford teams for sure.
In the current environment I think that if he’d have brought a 20+ race sponsor to the table, all past sins would have been forgotten. Well, maybe not at Penske but at all the other Ford teams.
Kenneth could race for many of the back market teams next year, if he would agree to eat less salary. He says it’s not about the money so go do it. You can help younger drivers while your there. Hendrick already did his charity bit with Mark Martin. So now we find out Matt went begging at Hendrick and furniture row while always saying he wasn’t worried about 2018. What a whiner. I lost respect for him when he grabbed Brad from behind. C.S.