Matt Kenseth is solid, steady and even-keeled. So much so, that when Nextel came on board as the NASCAR Cup Series title sponsor back in 2004, one of their ad campaigns focused on the notion that Kenseth was perhaps not human, but rather a robot.
Kenseth, now 48-years old, flashed that subhuman ability again on Sunday in the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway.
Despite being away from the NASCAR Cup Series since the 2018 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (18 months ago), Kenseth hopped back into a Cup Series car with no practice and no qualifying at arguably NASCAR’s most difficult track — Darlington Raceway.
Although, you wouldn’t be able to tell by the methodical on-track performance, the butterflies were certainly fluttering in Kenseth’s tummy in the early laps of Sunday’s race.
“The first few laps today were kind of nerve-racking, but then it was sort of back to racing and thinking about what we needed to be better,” Kenseth said.
After rolling from the grid from the 12th-position, Kenseth maintained top-15 position for the majority of the race.
Even with a loose race car near the end of the event, Kenseth — who was learning the new competition package all day long — kept himself in position down the stretch for a good finish.
“I learned a lot throughout the race about the way the car handles and reacts to different situations, and it was nice to really get acclimated to the Camaro and the team in a real racing environment,” Kenseth explained.
The end result? An ultra satisfying 10th-place finish.
“It’s always a good feeling to get a top-10 at a place like Darlington, but to have done it under these circumstances feels that much better,” said Kenseth.
Sunday’s finish was sweet for Kenseth and his passionate fanbase. He and his legions of followers have a chance to do something that was yanked out from under him a few years ago. This unexpected curtain call is a chance for Kenseth to finally go out on his own terms.
In July 2017, Kenseth learned that he would not be retained at Joe Gibbs Racing, despite winning 15 races over a five-year period with the race team, which included a runner-up finish in the championship standings in 2013.
“I hope to race next year,” Kenseth said at the time. “I still enjoy racing. I still feel like I could be an asset to somebody, so I hope so.”
However, as time rolled on, Kenseth realized that a full-time gig with a competitive ride wasn’t in the cards for him, so he would decide to step away for the 2018 season.
“I’ll just take some time off, whatever that means,” Kenseth said. “I don’t know if that’s a year, two years, three months, four months, I mean you never know what happens. Maybe something comes along that really makes you excited and it feels like it’s going to be a fit, you might go do. Certainly not gonna rule that out, but for now, I’m not making any plans for 2018. I just plan on having some time off.”
Kenseth was lured back to race part-time in 2018 by his former team owner Jack Roush, in an effort to help return Roush Fenway Racing to their former glory. However, after just two top-10 finishes in 15 starts, it looked like a sad end to an illustrious career.
That is, until a slip of the tongue and brain by Kyle Larson during an iRacing event in April changed everything. Following the public relations disaster of uttering a racial slur, Larson was fired from Chip Ganassi Racing.
While Larson was out, Ganassi shocked the world when he announced that Kenseth would be the man to step into the No. 42 machine for the remainder of the 2020 season.
Now, with a Playoff eligibility waiver from NASCAR, Kenseth has a chance to prove he had more left in the tank, and perhaps now he can pave a path where he can finally walk away from the sport on his own terms.
After Sunday’s race, Kenseth now sits 34th in the championship standings, just 19 points outside of the top-30.
If Kenseth can work his way into the top-30, and win a race, or somehow point his way back inside the top-16 of the championship standings, he’ll find himself battling for a championship this fall.
Don’t even think about counting out the Wisconsin-native.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.