Matt Kenseth rules out racing return, arrives at realization: 'I know the days of winning races are over'

Matt Kenseth rules out racing return, arrives at realization: 'I know the days of winning races are over'

Jimmie Johnson is scheduled to make the third of nine starts in his partial NASCAR Cup Series schedule this weekend at Dover Motor Speedway. He’ll do so in a third Legacy Motor Club entry, the No. 84 Toyota, in Sunday’s Würth 400 (2 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Seeing his contemporary and LMC colleague run in select races hasn’t prompted the same itch from Matt Kenseth, who joined the organization last October as a competition advisor. The 52-year-old Hall of Famer last competed in 2020, finishing out the pandemic-plagued year as a replacement for Kyle Larson on Chip Ganassi’s team. That campaign — and his part-time return to team owner Jack Roush’s operation in 2018 — showed glimmers of Kenseth’s heyday, but cemented his thoughts about his racing career beyond his prime years.

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“No, I think my days of racing professionally are over,” Kenseth says. “I think everybody has that — most people do, some people maybe don’t — but I certainly had the realization that I can’t do it at the level that I wanted to do it at, or that I used to be able to do it, anymore. I really came to that realization. It was painfully obviously in 2020 when I came back and drove Chip’s car for that year. There’s a lot of circumstances that made it difficult to be competitive, but with all that being said, there’s some races we were fairly competitive, but most of the time I was just way over my head.”

Kenseth won 39 times in a Cup Series career that spanned 697 starts — just six more than Johnson. His last win came in his final full season in 2017 when he drove Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota to victory at Phoenix Raceway. He drove a No. 20 with a throwback livery in the following week’s season finale, signaling what seemed to be an end to his driving career.

Kenseth was 45 years old at the time of his last win, cognizant that prime performance and extra longevity rarely overlapped at the sport’s top level. Two rare exceptions come to mind: Mark Martin’s five-win 2009 season at age 50, and Harry Gant’s captivating four-race win streak at age 51 that made him “Mr. September” in 1991.

“I think there comes a time in most people’s career where if they’re going to be really honest with themselves, maybe they don’t want to tell everyone else, but they can look in the mirror and be like, ‘You know, my days of doing this at the level I used to be able to do it at, or the level the rest of these kids are doing it now, and to be able to keep up and win, those days are over,\"” Kenseth said. “And I’ve never really had any desire to go out there and run mid-pack or run in the back. I’ve never had a desire to do that. So like I said, I know the days of winning races are over, so with that being said, I would say so are my days of professional driving.”

Johnson, nearly four years his junior at age 48, joined Kenseth in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2024, one year after his friend. Johnson retired from full-time Cup Series competition in 2020, then dabbled in IndyCar racing for two seasons before his NASCAR return as a co-owner and driver last year.

His five starts so far in the No. 84 entry have yet to produce a top-10 finish, but there’s optimism for this weekend at Dover, where Johnson has recorded 11 of his 83 career wins.

“Historically, that’s probably his best race track,” Kenseth says. “So it’ll be interesting to see how he can do and how the team does.”