Monday, November 06, 2017

COMMENTARY: Kenseth's Departure Illustrates The Harsh Reality of Professional Sports

After 18 seasons at NASCAR’s highest level and with no quality rides open for the 2018 season, former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth says it’s time for some time off.

The 45-year old Wisconsin native told NBC Sports at Texas Motor Speedway Saturday that “I just don't feel (a return is) in the cards.

"I've put a lot of thought into it and pretty much decided after Martinsville… to take some time off," he added. "I don't know if that's forever, I don't know if that's a month, I don't know if that's five months, I don't know if that's two years.”

The 2003 MENCS champion is currently 10th in points after failing to advance to the Round of Eight two weeks ago. He is winless since New Hampshire in July of last year; a span of 51 races and confirmed in July that he will not return to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota next season, with youngster Erik Jones tabbed to fill that seat. Many observers assumed that the 38-time Cup Series winner would have no trouble finding a new ride for 2018 and beyond, but a changing economic climate and an influx of young driving talent appears set to relegate Kenseth to the sidelines, at least for now.

Unlike his 2013 move from Roush Fenway Racing to Gibbs, Kenseth said the decision was not entirely his own.

Kenseth: "Fighting it as long as I can."
“Moving to Joe Gibbs, everybody was like, 'Oh that must have been the hardest decision,’” he recalled. “Actually, it was one of the easiest decisions I've ever made. Both ends lined up. It lined up to not stay where I was for a whole bunch of different reasons, and it lined up to go (to JGR) for a whole bunch of different reasons. It was really easy.

“This one, I've been fighting it as long as I can. I'm like, 'Man, once you're done doing this, not many of us get to do this, especially at the top level.'

“I fought it for a long time.”

The 2003 MENCS champion said he saw the writing on the wall when team owner Rick Hendrick passed him over for the open seat in the No. 5 Chevrolet, in favor of youngster William Byron.

Byron takes the 20 next season
“When Rick put William in the 5 car and I didn’t get that opportunity… that should have been my biggest clue,” he said. “That was one I thought maybe I would get… hopefully go over there and get that car running better. I felt like I could really do that, and maybe mentor some of the young drivers coming along. That (decision) should have been the cold water in my face.”

Sources close to the situation say that in addition to a glut of a glut of young, talented drivers like Byron, Kenseth’s desire to land another top-quality MENCS ride was adversely impacted by his own salary demands. As a 19-year veteran of the Monster Energy Series, a former series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner, Kenseth has certain justifiable expectations when it comes to compensation.

No less than Dale Earnhardt, Jr., sounded the alarm recently, warning that veteran drivers will almost certainly make less money in coming years than they have in the past. Some drivers have accepted that economic reality, renegotiating their contracts and taking pay cuts. Others have not, and risk losing their seats to younger, less-expensive talents with longer potential shelf lives.

With major sponsors Farmer’s Insurance and Great Clips both announcing that they will not return to Hendrick’s No. 5 car next season, William Byron’s rookie price tag was almost certainly more palatable to HMS than that of Kenseth.

"Sometimes you can't make your own decisions,” admitted Kenseth last week. “People make them for you. That's unfortunate, because I wanted to make my own decisions. I felt like 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.

Headed for the NASCAR Hall Of Fame
“(But) I just came to the realization it's probably time to go do something different."

While refusing to use the word “retirement,” Kenseth said he knows that the 2017 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway – his 650th career MENCS start – could easily be his last. Like Ward Burton and Greg Biffle before him, Kenseth knows that “out of sight” in the NASCAR Garage often means “out of mind.”

Very few professional athletes get to choose their own exit strategy. For every John Elway or Ned Jarrett – champions who retired at the top of their respective games – there are dozens of Muhammad Alis and Darrell Waltrips, who stay a bit too long at the dance and are unceremoniously shown the door.

In NASCAR, the transition from “respected veteran” to “whatever happened to” trivia question can be especially swift. With only 40-odd seats in its premiere division – each dependent on tens of millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship – there’s a very thin line between hot property and has-been.

“Most likely, when you're gone, you don't get the opportunity again,” admitted Kenseth last week. "The retirement word doesn’t really make a lot of sense in this sport. It’s not like the NFL where you get a pension if you retire… so there’s really no reason to talk about it.”

If Kenseth has reached the end of his competitive road, a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame most certainly awaits. In addition to his 38 career Cup Series wins, there is the circuit’s 2000 Rookie of the Year crown, 29 Xfinity Series scores and a 2004 IROC title to pad his resume.

Is it right that a driver with Kenseth’s credentials sits on the sidelines while others -- far younger and less proven -- race on?

Probably not. But it is the harsh reality of professional sports.

"I’ll just take some time off, whatever that means,” said Kenseth. “I don’t know if that’s a year, two years, three months, four months. You never know what happens. Maybe something comes along that really makes you excited. (If) it feels like it’s going to be a fit, you might go do.

“I’m certainly not going to rule that out, but for now, I’m not making any plans for 2018. I just plan on having some time off.”


  1. Harvick's rant a few months ago in regard to Earnhardt Jr had everything to do with money. What he really was trying to say is that Jr became ridiculously wealthy at the expense of other drivers, with minimal on track performance. Now that Jr will be gone, maybe more exposure will come to other drivers, which will equal more opportunities. Kenseth is not being fired, let go,,etc, so what happened to him is the reality of professional sports. But, I have to ask how much of it has to do with his persona. He comes off as flat and unenthused for as long as I can recall. Also, how many sponsors did the guy go through the past ten years. How much of that have to do with his persona.

    1. DeWalt was with him for 20+ years. So he wasn't hard to deal with or boring in person. It was the sponsorship game that got expensive & dictated all the sponsors in the past 10 years.

      I met Kenseth at least a dozen times. And Mr. Moody could give you his opinion as well.

      Humble & quiet don't sell so much on the TV, but in person it's absolutely great. Sponsors loved Kenseth for his in-person persona.

    2. I doubt his persona turned off anyone. The reality is Kenseth gambled and lost on getting another ride because his salary demand was unrealistic and he refused to see that it was unrealistic.

  2. It also shows one of the things wrong with this sport. I have followed it for a long time. They have always said they have the 40+ best drivers. I always questioned that and this highlights that even more. As time has pasted, my interest has been decreasing because of this type of situation. Not all the best drivers are on the track. Obviously money is a big part of this but to me, this diminishes the sport.

    1. I have some agreement with your analysis, but I am interesting in citation of examples of quality drivers being denied access to the Cup level for illegitimate reasons.

  3. Anonymous4:12 PM

    Meanwhile in New York, Ben McAdoo is talking openly of benching his 36-year-old quarterback. The same quarterback that won 2 Super Bowls while being named Super Bowl MVP in both wins.

    The one constant in professional sports: Getting old sucks.

  4. Another real fact would be that even though there are 40 cars out there, only about half of those stand an honest chance of winning from week to week. The quality of rides is only about 1/2 of the quality number of drivers out there.

  5. Anonymous10:01 AM

    Younger, cheaper. Experience be damned. The real world meets NASCAR. NASCAR has no one to blame but themselves. They've been trying for a week to make the 24/11 controversy a thing by sticking the Hamlin post-race interview video after every race video but it isn't going to take. With the rare exception of the #24, sponsors won't take a chance on the 'young guns' who have little fan following. Nor will they take a chance on a sport that failed to change with the times and insists on emphasizing crashes and wrecks instead of true competition.

    Younger, cheaper. MAybe we could retire some of the NASCAR hierarchy and see what new blood would do for the sport.

  6. Anonymous11:21 AM

    Age is a very depressing thing in motor sports, even though he thinks a comeback is possible is old school thinking. the #2 reason is money to hire him, 3rd reason personally, very dry & is old, so spon drop him like Dollar General after the 2 race absent because bad mind set & evil act of wrecking Joey, and new spon goes to other places. owners are good business men to be able to market their teams to be able to compete. 4th reason the cost to compete needs to be reduced which NASCAR is working towards every day so a good show can happen.

  7. I agree. It is the same thing that ultimately set Indycar back. The cost of competition moves the pendulum to an elitist sport and makes skill and talent a secondary consideration. One should be concerned about the next generation of team owners, after the Hendrick, Penske, and Rousch's leave who will field the rides.

  8. My grandfather always said... a pig gets fat but a hog gets slaughtered.

    It is pretty obvious the top tier drivers were demanding a hogs wage. The real question is... did Carl see the writing on the wall or did he get pushed out by JGR.

    And finally, who all is next?

  9. Anonymous10:04 AM

    Kenseth problems begain in wrecking Joey and sitting down for 2 races, which gave Jones a chance to drive the 20 and in line to receive it full time like it has.

  10. Here’s a wild return thought about Matt Kenneth: Now that Barney Visser and the #78 team are the Champs...when Barney returns from his heart surgery, he my revive thoughts about starting the #77 team back up and have Kenseth drive for a season or so. I’m sure Martin Truax Jr. and all the former team members from the #77 would approve! Win-Win for Visser; sponsors; Toyota; fans; and Matt Kenseth!

  11. Anonymous6:45 PM

    Question;; Does the Winner Circle Program still exist ? If Matt goes to another Team...will the Winner Circle Program $$$$$ follow him or does it go to the owner...