Opinion: Kenseth Caught in the Middle

Matt Kenseth

Through no fault of his own and certainly not on his terms, Kenseth finds himself without a competitive ride for 2018. (Photo: Getty images)

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Some people might not notice Matt Kenseth’s absence from the NASCAR scene until three or four weeks into the 2018 season. That would be understandable since Kenseth put together a stellar career flying mostly under the radar.

How many times did an announcer exclaim “where did he come from’ when Kenseth climbed into the top five or the lead of a race with only a handful of laps remaining? Kenseth made a living out of driving smooth and smart, never burning up tires or an equipment when he didn’t need to and putting himself in position to win. By the way he did that 39 times in the Cup Series and claimed a championship along the way.

Many call him a modern day David Pearson, a worthy and spot on comparison to “The Silver Fox,” who also used his talent and smarts to the tune of a spot in the Hall of Fame.

But Kenseth’s legacy, if this is indeed the final chapter before he rides off into the NASCAR sunset, has a bit more subtext than simply his driving style or the numbers he put on the board.

Kenseth will always be remembered as the last full season NASCAR champion with his 2003 title pre-dating what was first the Chase and is now the playoffs by one season. Many give him credit (or fault depending on the point of view) for NASCAR ditching the long standard of adding up points through the course of an entire season in favor for the radical addition of a regular season and then championship schedule.

He won one race that season and had the title wrapped up before the last race of the campaign with a final 90 point margin over Jimmie Johnson and third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., 207 behind.

The reality is as Winston was bowing out and NEXTEL set to take over as series sponsor the following season, the sanctioning body had the Chase concept in work long before Kenseth clinched the ’03 title. But his performance that year is still regarded as a catalyst for the change.

In recent seasons Kenseth became known as much for his wit and comedy as his ability behind the wheel. Sarcasm and a sense of humor drier than any aged cheddar from his native Wisconsin were the order of the day whenever Kenseth came into the media center or was a radio/TV guest.

Kenseth was thrust into the spotlight in 2015 thanks to his celebrated incident with Joey Logano. It started in Kansas and came to a head in Martinsville with Kenseth’s infamous payback taking Logano out of the championship picture, creating one of the sport’s seminal moments. It also resulted in a two race suspension for Kenseth who weathered the storm and to his credit never backed down from his action.

“It's a tough sport; some days you're the bat and some days you're the ball. I was the ball a few weeks ago and I was the ball again today, so that part of it is never fun," Kenseth said.

That incident caused some to look differently at Kenseth, both in a positive and negative light. But in reality it was the behavior of a dyed in the rule racer, someone who cut his teeth on the rough and tumble short tracks of the Midwest carrying in his DNA the axiom of always racing others as they raced you. You might disagree with his over the top response, being nine laps down and purposely crashing a driver racing for a championship. But at least you knew where it came from.

Now through no fault of his own and certainly not on his terms, Kenseth finds himself without a competitive ride for 2018. The economic squeeze NASCAR and its teams are facing has forced Kenseth to the sidelines in favor of younger and more cost efficient talent.

While prominent names like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick might get a lot of attention with their imminent departures after the checkered flag in Homestead, Kenseth deserves equal notice. Unlike the flashier duo, Kenseth is excelling at a high level and winning races as he did last week in Phoenix. The honest truth is auto racing isn’t completely a performance-based business. Not without corporate dollars attached to a driver’s name, something Kenseth is lacking.

So take a close look at Matt Kenseth as he takes his final laps on Sunday. The next time you see him may very well be when he is inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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