There’s little chance Matt Kenseth will return to race in the NASCAR Cup Series, at least in a full-time capacity.
The Cambridge native worked for Chip Ganassi Racing at NASCAR’s premier level in 32 races in 2020. He drove the No. 42 Chevrolet in place of Kyle Larson, who was fired after he used a racial slur during a virtual iRacing event on April 12.
“I can say with almost 100 percent certainty that my days in professional racing — at least full-time professional racing — are over,” said Kenseth, who posted one top-five and one top-10 finish during the 2020 season.
“I look forward to doing late model stuff or IMSA, or something like that. A little bit here or there. As far as NASCAR racing full-time or professional racing, those days are behind me.”
Kenseth’s remarkable career includes a 2000 Cup Rookie of the Year award, the 2003 Cup championship and 39 victories — including Daytona 500 wins in 2009 and 2012. Before being hired for the Chip Ganassi Racing ride, he stepped away from full-time competition in 2018.
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Kenseth is among an elite group of drivers — Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, David Pearson and Richard Petty are the others — to earn a Cup Series championship, Rookie of the Year award and Daytona 500 win.
Kenseth, 48, has accumulated 697 Cup starts, with his most recent victory occurring at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 11, 2017.
Kenseth said the COVID-19 pandemic made jelling with the CGR team a challenging task. Besides qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, no qualifying or practice sessions were held at tracks.
That decision meant drivers got in their cars about 10 to 15 minutes prior to the start of each race.
“We didn’t have practice all year, which is the craziest thing ever,” he said. “I never dreamed I would run every single race without getting a chance to get in the car, work with my team and make changes, and work together and try to get the car better.
“I was very disappointed with the results, that I wasn’t able to do better and help the team more.”
Kenseth finished 10th in his first race with CGR at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on May 17, but the team couldn’t gain success on a race-by-race basis.
His best outing of the year was a runner-up finish behind Kevin Harvick at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 5. Kenseth led 12 laps during the race but was passed by Harvick on a restart with two laps left on the legendary oval.
“Finishing second at Indy was the highlight of our year,” Kenseth said.
“We didn’t get any decent momentum or consistency to build off of. We had competitive runs here and there. We had a little bit of momentum going at times, and other times it felt like we were going backwards.”
Despite his lackluster performance, Kenseth said there were still a handful of memorable moments.
Jimmie Johnson, a longtime Kenseth friend, wrapped up his 20-year Cup career. The Californian won 83 races and seven Cup titles driving with Hendrick Motorsports.
Kenseth said he’s been impressed with Johnson’s competitive edge despite rules changes and format tweaks at the Cup level.
Johnson signed a two-year deal to run street and road course races for Chip Ganassi Racing in the IndyCar Series. Johnson hasn’t ruled out running an occasional Cup race.
“I know he still has a huge passion for racing and wants to do a lot of different stuff, do IndyCar for a couple years,” Kenseth said. “That’s a huge risk and undertaking. To race in a stock car for 20 years and go try a super competitive, different series like that is a big deal. Man, I can’t wait to watch that.”
“People can argue about it, but he’s one of the greatest drivers of all time. I appreciate him as a fan and as a person.”
Kenseth made his race debut in Cup as a substitute driver for Bill Elliott in 1998, so he’s gotten the chance to know Elliott and son, Chase, throughout the years. Seeing Chase Elliott win the 2020 Cup title reminded Kenseth of Chase’s childhood and his budding interest in the sport.
“Chase was always paying attention and really plugged into racing a lot,” Kenseth said. “For Bill to be able to share racing with Chase, I think that’s awesome.”
Kenseth didn’t talk to any team owners about jobs in 2021, and said he’s looking forward to getting back to daily life and the challenges of being a parent. Kenseth and wife, Katie, are raising daughters Kaylin, Grace, Clara and Mallory in North Carolina. They’ll also spend time with Matt’s son, Ross, and his family in Florida.
Kenseth said he’s looking forward to being a husband and dad, and going back to a life without worrying about a schedule. His 2019 offseason a couple years ago showed Kenseth what life without work was like.
“I will say that 2019 was one of the best years of my life,” Kenseth said. “I had tons of free time, and had a great time with Katie and the kids. There was no stress and we spent the whole summer together doing whatever we wanted to do.
“I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity at Ganassi and thankful that I did it. I was kind of getting the itch to do race again. So there was a lot of good that came about.”