Matt Kenseth’s emotions erupted almost as much as the fountain of steam that was blowing sky-high out of the radiator on his Circle K Toyota.
The veteran NASCAR driver had just won the Monster Energy Cup Series Can-Am 500 on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, and had completely overheated his race car upon burning donuts at the start/finish line and disappearing into a giant ball of smoke.
As he pulled into victory lane, the tears began to fall about as fast as the steam was escaping from the hood of the No. 20.
“Everybody dreams about going out a winner,” Kenseth said, trying to keep it together. “I try to never let anybody see me cry, but I’m kind of an emotional guy, typically, honestly. I just try to hide it well.”
Kenseth, 45, might have stolen the show with his first win of the 2017 season, but even though he posted his 39th career Cup Series victory, he’s soon about to be a man without a NASCAR team. Joe Gibbs Racing determined this summer it has already decided to replace him in the No. 20 next year with 21-year-old Erik Jones, leaving Kenseth out in the cold.
Martin Truex Jr. (78) comes around a turn in the 67th lap during the Can-Am 500 on Sunday. (Photo: Patrick Breen/The Republic)
He’s had some modest offers from lesser-financed teams, but when they take your ride, the bottom feeders come calling and there’s only more race left on the schedule – the Ford Ecoboost 400 next Sunday in Homestead, Fla. – is usually means you’re done.
It’s racing’s way of forcing you into retirement, whether you’re ready to go or not.
“I hate to think he’s finished knowing that he wants to compete,” best friend and longtime competitor Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I know he wants to race and I think he can, obviously, still be competitive. I hope he gets that opportunity.”
Apparently, it’s not going to happen. If he can’t be competitive every week and have the car to win a championship, “then I’m not going to do it,” Kenseth said. If anything, he added, Sunday’s win only helps to reaffirm the fact he will be walking away.
“There’s not a lot of people that get to go out like this,” he said, “so it was a special day and I’m looking forward to next week and hopefully trying to race them again one more time.”
The big news in Homestead, of course, will be how the Championship 4 plays out to determine this year’s Series Cup champion. The fourth and final spot was determined in Sunday’s race when Brad Keselowski, who finished 16th, earned enough points to join Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in the NASCAR’s version of the Final Four.
Of the four, only Truex has yet to win a Series Cup championship.
“That means it’s my turn,” he said, smiling.
Keselowski finished Sunday’s race with 4,132 total points, enough to edge out Denny Hamlin (4,113), who was knocked out with tire problems, Ryan Blaney (4,109), who finished 17th, and hot-shot youngster Chase Elliott (4,107). He was runner-up to Kenseth on Sunday and helped add to Hamlin’s tire grief by bumping him and steering him into the wall as retaliation for their tangle two weeks ago at Martinsville.
“I race guys the way they race me,” a defiant Elliott, the son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, said.
Knowing Kenseth’s situation and noting how fast the No. 20 car was on Sunday, Truex said, “I was kind of cheering for him a little bit because I couldn’t catch him.”
“I’m glad you were cheering,” Kenseth’s JGR teammate, Kyle Busch, said, teasing Truex.
Fact is, everybody loves Kenseth. They have ever since he broke into stock car racing with Earnhardt in Busch (now Xfinity) Series. “He’s meant so much to the sport over the years,” Keselowski said.
Unlike his buddy Earnhardt, who is retiring this season on his own accord and finished 10th in his final Phoenix appearance on Sunday, there hasn’t been an appreciation tour for Kenseth. There have been no gifts or presentations and near as the eyes could tell, there was only one No. 20 sign in the stands from a fan cheering him on.
As Kenseth was wrapping up his post-race interview, though, members of his pit crew stormed into the media center hooting and hollering in celebration. They each high-fived Kenseth and hopped around like little kids until Kenseth got them under control.
“Just in time, guys. Thanks,” he told them. “I’m going to miss you guys. Well, I’ll miss most of you.”
LEGEND: Dale Earnhardt Jr. shares his thoughts on Dad, Phoenix, retiring and life
MORE: Matt Kenseth wins NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Can-Am 500 in Avondale
Reach McManaman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac and listen to him live every Wednesday night between 7-9 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.
Powered by RFPRADIO.COM