LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Matt Kenseth knows his NASCAR career will soon fade to black.
But the same week he was given a pink slip by Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth hit the road for a Metallica concert instead of pounding the pavement to find a ride in 2018.
“Actually made me feel 20 again for about four hours, which was pretty fun,” Kenseth said.
If Kenseth actually was 20, he’d be an in-demand driver for a Cup Series rapidly undergoing a changing of the guard. Young is cool. And for a sport desperately angling to hook a new generation of fans, 20-something drivers such as Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Erik Jones could lead the charge into the next decade and beyond. Some of that evolution comes at the expense of veteran drivers such as Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion and a two-time Daytona 500 champion, who got the official news this week he was out at JGR at the end of the season.
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The 21-year-old Jones will take Kenseth’s job in the No. 20 Toyota. Jones is on a one-year loaner contract to Gibbs’ sister team Furniture Row Racing, and Gibbs had to put Jones somewhere in 2018.
Kenseth’s fate had been in limbo — though it seemed obvious Jones was being groomed for the ride — and Gibbs made the transaction complete, leaving the 45-year-old driver without a car next year.
“I’m just glad they finally put it out so I don’t have to pretend anymore,” Kenseth said at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Everybody can ask you about it, everybody can move on and get back to racing.”
Kenseth, who qualified third at New Hampshire, said Friday he had no hard feelings toward the organization and has no concerns about his future. He also has no timetable for a decision but there are few options.
The best bet could be a one-year landing spot at Hendrick Motorsports driving the No. 88 Chevrolet. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride will be open once he retires at the end of the season. Team owner Rick Hendrick has promising prospect William Byron, a 19-year-old Xfinity Series driver, and could consider Alex Bowman following a solid stint subbing last season for the injured Earnhardt.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson said sponsorship dollars would likely dictate who gets the coveted ride. Johnson, who will have a vote on his new teammate, also said Kenseth has the resume that will earn him a ride somewhere next season.
“Matt’s just too good,” he said. “The guy can win races and championships and that won’t be overlooked. But I do feel Matt’s at a point in his career where he just won’t take any ride.”
Kenseth has won 16 races over five seasons with JGR and is NASCAR’s oldest full-time driver. He is the veteran at Gibbs, which has 2015 champion Kyle Busch, Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez. Kenseth, 11th in the standings in his 18th Cup season, said he knew for about a year he could be on the way out at JGR.
“I feel like we did a lot of great things,” Kenseth said. “I don’t think there’s anything to be bitter about or feel bad about. We’re both living up to the agreements we made.”
Outside of the 88, quality rides are slim for 2018.
“I hope to race next year,” Kenseth said. “I still enjoy racing. I still feel like I could be an asset to somebody, so I hope so.”
His other options include a bunch of maybes: Hendrick could cut ties with underachieving Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 and Stewart-Haas Racing may have two openings if Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch do not return. NASCAR has already lost veteran stars Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards over the last three seasons and the popular Earnhardt is on his way out.
The new generation is ready to take over. The cover of the New Hampshire race program shows Elliott and Larson in sunglasses with the headline “The Future is Bright: Elliott and Larson to Carry NASCAR Torch.”
“NASCAR needs Chase Elliott to win,” 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick said. “Chase Elliott is the tie to the traditional NASCAR fan. It’s the only shot they’ve got with the traditional NASCAR fan. His dad. The history and heritage of the sport. There isn’t anybody else in the lineup that I can think of.”
That includes Larson, a dirt tracker from California who will race anything at any time. Larson turned the fastest qualifying lap for Sunday’s race at New Hampshire before his time was disallowed for an inspection failure.
“A distant second,” Harvick said. “Dirt racing is great, but they don’t have the fanbase that a NASCAR-type fanbase does to help elevate him because most of those people aren’t going to go to a NASCAR race.”
Kenseth was once considered one of NASCAR’s hottest young drivers. He’s now riding out the string, hoping for a win and a strong showing down the stretch to showcase to other teams he still has something left for next year.
“We’re both going to work as hard as we can to win races, win a championship for JGR,” he said. “Next year doesn’t affect anything for this year at all. It really doesn’t.”
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