A few months back during the NASCAR Media Tour in January, I asked Matt Kenseth whether he has an internal clock regarding his exit strategy.
“I haven’t really thought about the time I would allot myself,” he said. “I love what I’m doing. I feel like I’m as competitive as I’ve ever been. Won a lot of races last year and was in championship contention again. I haven’t really put any thought into a number or anything at all.”
Fast-forward to late April. Questions are getting asked again. It’s not fair, of course. But we live in a world of reaction and instant overreaction. NASCAR is a weird beast of nature, anyway, where the difference between success and failure is predicated on quirky variables.
Kenseth qualified second at Bristol last weekend, only to drop way back in the pack with right front tire issues. Kenseth finished 36th and is now 18th in the Cup standings.
It’s only a small sample size, but after eight races, Kenseth has only one top-10 finish. Is it possible that the finish line — the inevitable one — is closing in on Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR season champion as well as Daytona 500 winner in 2009 and 2012?
“I have to be totally honest with you and you may not believe me, but I haven’t really thought about it that much for myself just because I feel incredibly good, I’m driving I think for arguably the best team in the sport, love the guys I’m working with and we’re still really competitive,” he said last week after qualifying at Bristol, Tenn.
Now 44, Kenseth is in his 19th Cup year, and as he noted, has shown no signs of decline until the recent turn of events on the heels of the controversial dust-up with Joey Logano last season. Overcome by retribution and payback for previous incidents, Kenseth intentionally took out Logano’s car in Martinsville, leading to a two-race suspension. He finished 15th in points.
But he has been superb in previous seasons. And unlike other sports, NASCAR allows a driver a great deal of wiggle room into their 40s.
“This sport clearly isn’t nearly as athletic as those other sports, so with your body you don’t have to throw a football 50 yards and you don’t have to be able to dunk the ball and run hard for an hour,” the Wisconsin native said. “You don’t have to be able to do that stuff. You can look around the garage and see there’s some people in great physical shape and some that probably aren’t in such great physical shape and both groups win races and win championships. I think it’s a little different. I’m thankfully not to that point yet.”
Are heat races in NASCAR’s Cup future?
We will pause a second while NASCAR traditionalists lose their lunch. But perhaps resistance is futile. NASCAR seems open to tweaking its current format, just like it did when heat races made their debut in the Xfinity Series at Bristol last weekend.
“I think it’s something we’ll continue to look at,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president, said last week. “We certainly want to talk to promoters and race fans. If we see positive momentum and fans really like it, it’s something we’d take a look at [for Sprint Cup]. We know with any change there is always some risk.”
Of course there is. Some fans have yet to embrace the Chase postseason format, which has been tweaked over the years. Beyond Bristol, heat races will be used this weekend at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway and two more times this season.
“We’ve got to make sure we hang on to our hard-core fans because always with change comes some challenges,” O’Donnell said. “Our goal is to grow the sport. If we can make it more exciting and have everyone even more up on the wheel, we’ll take a look at it. But right now, [we’re] really happy with the decision to go with those four events in Xfinity.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Peyton Manning are now teammates ... in way. Check your Nationwide marketing plan. Manning and Earnhardt are insurance pitchmen, quickly bonding at the office.
Last weekend in Bristol was another opportunity.
“I’ve had the chance to spend time with him in the past one particular time because of our friendship that we both have with Kenny Chesney. We both ran into each other at a concert and got to drink a couple of beers together,” Earnhardt said. “That was pretty cool. He is also my teammate with the Nationwide deal and he does a great job as a spokesman. We have had an opportunity to talk on the phone a few times through that relationship, which has been pretty special for me.”
Manning returned the kudos, telling Fox Sports that Earnhardt would be the No. 1 pick if he were drafting a NASCAR team.
“I’ve got to go with Earnhardt obviously,” Manning said. “He and I are on the same team now.”