The reception line for Matt Kenseth stretched beyond the confines of Victory Lane, after the lame-duck driver if the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won his 39th-career Cup race on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
After nearly two decades on NASCAR’s top tour, the 2003 champion isn’t sure what his future holds. Kenseth, 45, is being replaced by 21-year Erik Jones in the No. 20 Camry next season— he isn’t leaving on his own terms.
Mired in a 51-race drought, Kenseth wasn’t sure he’d ever take another checkered flag before hanging up his helmet at the end of the year. Then came the Can-Am 500, and Kenseth slaked his thirst for victory in the Sonoran Desert.
“With only two left, I didn’t think we were probably had a good chance of getting back to victory lane,” Kenseth said. “It’s been I don’t know how many races – somebody’s probably going to tell me tonight – but it’s been at least 50 or 60, so it’s been a long time. We’ve had a lot of close ones. Just felt like it was never meant to be and today it was meant to be.”
Kenseth led 52 laps at the one-mile track before Chase Elliott passed the No. 20 Toyota on the second circuit after the final restart on Lap 282. But the veteran bided his time and reeled in the 21-year-old driver with nine laps remaining in the Can-Am 500.
“I got the tingles from head to toe,” Kenseth said. “I knew it was going to be a race.”
Despite Elliott’s disappointment at losing another race and failing to qualify for the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend, he was one of the first to congratulate Kenseth.
Kyle Busch met Kenseth for the finish-line celebration after the race.
“Being his teammate for the last few years and having the respect for him and everything that we've had out on the racetrack for as long as we've raced together, we've been able to never put a door to each other,” Busch said. “So it's been awesome to have that and have him as a teammate to work together the last few years. He's been really down and frustrated and trying to figure out this season and what it's all about, to try to go out there and try to win in his final season, his not‑on‑his‑own‑terms final season.
“I just think that was a huge opportunity for him. I think it shows that there's no reason why he couldn't have gotten a job anywhere else. It's just I guess the industry didn't see Matt Kenseth as their driver, and that's really, really unfortunate because I love the guy and have raced with respect for him for a long, long time and will forever respect him for what he's done for the sport.”
Truex: "He's done so much for the sport"
Ryan Blaney feted Kenseth in Victory Lane, as did NASCAR chairman Mike Helton. Martin Truex Jr. was running third behind the Nos. 20 and 24, and he was pulling for Kenseth.
“I think it's really cool to see,” Truex said. “I was really excited for him when he got the checkered flag. Like I was kind of cheering for him a little bit because I couldn't catch him, so I'm like, I was hoping he'd get the 24.”
“He's such a good guy and he's done so much for the sport, and he's an awesome guy to be around, and just I know this year has been really tough on him. You can just see it, and you can tell when you talk to him. To see him win that race was amazing. To see him on his roof out there excited, I mean, you could see the excitement. Definitely well deserved. He's worked hard this year, had a lot of crappy luck, and definitely good to see.”
Friendship with Dale Jr.
Kenseth has known since August that this would probably be the end of the road. He watched the better rides go to younger and younger drivers. But it almost seems fitting that after beating his buddy Dale Earnhardt Jr., to win Rookie-of-the-Year honors in 2000, that the two would exit the sport together.
“Matt engaged me early in our careers in the Xfinity series and I was really shy, didn’t have an understanding of how to interact with my peers and competitors that well.” Earnhardt said. “I was just trying to do well. I was really nervous coming up into the ranks, but Matt engaged me and we became friends through conversations with him really quickly. We were both sort of coming into the Xfinity series at the same time and then we went into the Cup series together. We did a lot of things, together.
“We supported each other and enjoyed seeing each other have success. Matt, I love his sense of humor, I love the person he is and the person he has become, the father he is. He has always had an influence on me as far as how I race or the person I want to be or become. It’s just been a great friendship even today…that will be with us long after we are done driving.”
Although Earnhardt had the luxury of deciding when it was time to retire, it pains him watching Kenseth leave when he still has the fire and talent it takes to race at the Monster Energy Cup Series level.
“I hate to think that he is finished knowing that he wants to continue to compete,” Kenseth said. “I know that he wants to race and I think he can obviously, still be competitive and I hope that he gets the opportunity he wants to be able to continue. It’s going to make Homestead even more emotional because we came in together.”
Check out these post-race interviews with Kensenth and his team: