Matt Kenseth rounding into role with Legacy Motor Club: 'The timing was right'

When Matt Kenseth arrived to pick up John Hunter Nemechek for a Saturday carpool up to Martinsville Speedway earlier this month, birthday festivities for 3-year-old Aspen Nemechek were in progress. Party attendee and fellow Cup Series driver Kyle Busch asked Nemechek, “Who’s that?” as he pulled up.

Any calling card could have worked to answer the “Who’s that?” question. A former NASCAR Cup Series champion, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, or — pulling from more recent history — a NASCAR Hall of Famer. But that chilly springtime weekend, Kenseth’s driving duties as Nemechek’s ride-share were significantly less glamorous.

“I was like, that’s what I’m relegated to is being an Uber driver up to Martinsville,” Kenseth said, days after the trip. “So I was going to actually offer Kyle to jump in, but I was going to make him pay, and I knew he would have never done that.”

Kenseth hasn’t lost any zip off his dry-humor fastball. The deadpan delivery that was part of his fabric during his driving days is still a trademark in his recent return to the sport with Legacy Motor Club, where the 52-year-old signed on last fall as a competition advisor for the team, co-owned by his good friend and seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Part of Kenseth’s charge is to assist the organization in its transition this season to Toyota, but the other component is to provide guidance and serve as a mentor for Nemechek and teammate Erik Jones, who will be sidelined from this weekend’s activity at Dover Motor Speedway after suffering a back injury Sunday in a crash at Talladega Superspeedway. Corey Heim, a 21-year-old Craftsman Truck Series regular, will substitute in the No. 43 Toyota.

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Kenseth’s influence has helped build camaraderie with Jones and the team’s newcomer in Nemechek, who returned to the Cup Series this season after a seven-win campaign last year in the Xfinity Series. On his nearly two-hour trip to Martinsville, Nemechek said the conversation flowed and helped the two become even better acquainted. And as Nemechek said before the season started, “There’s never a dull moment.”

“I always kind of knew him, but didn’t know him on a personal level. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to spend way more time with him and kind of pick his brain in some different ways,” Nemechek says. “… But having a guy like that around that’s won so many times, and has been in the ups, has been in the downs, has helped build programs. Just a great guy to have around.”

Kenseth last drove in the Cup Series in 2020, ending his career with 697 starts and 39 wins. In the years since his retirement, his days have been spent training for and competing in marathons, vacationing with family, travel sports with his daughters and being honored with his induction into the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023.

“Once you’re not doing something all the time, that’s the sort of thing people always ask you, ‘What’ve you been doing with all your time?\"” Kenseth says. “It’s funny, because I remember when my mother-in-law retired, and that was the thing that aggravated her the most is when people would ask her what she did all day, and I never really understood that until I was a little bit in that situation — not that this has aggravated me, by the way — but honestly, my days are just busy.”

Kenseth said this year has slowed slightly with the youngest of his four daughters reaching full-day kindergarten, and that the initial conversations with Johnson opened the door to his new role back in the sport. Those early discussions led to lunch meetings with Cal Wells, the team’s CEO, where he learned more about Legacy M.C.’s vision.

“He was just looking for a little bit of help and some consulting and to bump some ideas off somebody, to come in there and try to help just a little bit,” Kenseth says. “For me, it just seemed like the timing was right. Obviously, like I said, Jimmie is not only a good friend, but the most aggravating thing about Jimmie is I’ve never found anything he’s bad at, so I really think that his intentions are to make this the top race team, and I think if anybody can do it, it’s going to be him. The timing worked good for me as an opportunity to get back into the sport. I’ve been away for a few years, so it’s just something I was interested in trying.”

Matt Kenseth chats with Legacy Motor Club driver Erik Jones at Martinsville Speedway
Matt Kenseth chats with Legacy Motor Club driver Erik Jones at Martinsville Speedway

Kenseth’s arrival last October also filled a need for the organization, which has undergone a series of massive transformations in recent years. The team name has shifted along with its ownership structure — from its Richard Petty Motorsports origins to the merger with Maury Gallagher’s group into Petty GMS, and lastly under the LMC banner with Johnson’s acquisition of a minority stake. The move to Toyota from Chevrolet has been its own major undertaking.

What was missing amid the seismic, nearly annual changes was a system of checks and balances for the team’s drivers. That’s where Kenseth has stepped in as both an advocate and a liaison.

“Matt is not necessarily … he is in competition, right, but he’s not on the car performance. He’s kind of on our side. ‘OK, what do you guys need to be better? How can we help you?\"” Jones said before the season began. “You know, the last few years, we haven’t had any kind of driver focus, right? We’ve been just trying to get our competition stuff better, and we’ve kind of got that where it’s heading the right direction, and now we wanted to get the drivers to where they can get everything we want.”

What Kenseth has found are two talented drivers who spent significant stints with longtime Toyota team Joe Gibbs Racing, which was Kenseth’s last full-time stop in the Cup Series. Both are roughly the same age — Jones 27, and Nemechek 26 — but Jones brings more experience, now in his eighth year at the Cup level, with Nemechek in just his second Cup season — returning to the top level after a single season there with Front Row Motorsports in 2020.

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Kenseth has noted Jones’ even keel and veteran poise. He described Nemechek as a “gym rat” with an intense approach to fitness. “It’s been fun for me, they’re both very different personalities, very different drivers,” Kenseth says, “and I think that’ll be a big advantage because they’ll be able to learn a lot from each other.”

What’s next for the group is moving forward and establishing a foundation around its new building blocks. Jones sits 20th in the Cup Series standings with a medical waiver for playoff eligibility to account for his injury absence; he’ll likely need to win to clinch a postseason berth. Nemechek ranks 22nd with two top-10 finishes in his first season driving the Next Gen Cup Series car, though crashes in the last three races have caused him to slip back in the field.

Making progress, Kenseth says, isn’t something that’s achieved quickly, but the personnel and manufacturer alignment are in place to help Legacy M.C. gain ground.

“I think it’s a process. I don’t think anything ever really, really happens overnight,” Kenseth says. “I feel like the success of any business — not just racing, but in any sports and any businesses — obviously involves people. So it’s getting not only the right people, but getting the right people in the right places. I think going to Toyota was a great step. I think when it comes to motorsports, nobody does it better than they do. Nobody puts more effort, money, dedication, whatever, into winning. So I think that was a great move. I think they’ve been doing all the right things. I think it just, it takes some time to go from where maybe we were a couple of years ago to winning races on a consistent basis. That’s just gonna take a little bit of time.”