Kenseth dusting off firesuit for chance to win races again

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Matt Kenseth had a blissful year of retirement. He had time to travel with his wife and four daughters, made his first visit to Europe and took up marathon running.

It was free time he never had in 22 years of racing at NASCAR’s national level.

“It was really just spending time with Katie and the kids and every day we just woke up trying to find something fun to do as a family,” Kenseth said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I’d have to say it was the best summer of my life.”

So why in the world would Kenseth give that up?

He agreed this week to come back to NASCAR and drive for Chip Ganassi Racing, which two weeks ago fired Kyle Larson for using a racial slur during an iRacing event. Kenseth turned 48 in March, will be the oldest driver in the field when NASCAR resumes and he last drove a Cup series car in the 2018 season finale.

“It was a very unexpected opportunity. The timing was very, very interesting,” Kenseth said. “I’d say we’re all in a very unique situation, globally, everybody’s in a unique situation. When Katie and I talked about, we figured it is probably the last opportunity like this that I will ever have.”

Kenseth wasn’t ready to retire at the end of 2017, when he was moved out at Joe Gibbs Racing because it needed his seat for Erik Jones. A two-time Daytona 500 winner and NASCAR’s champion in 2003, Kenseth was still a competitive, championship-contending driver.

He looked at what was available and decided to retire.

“When you’re as fortunate as I’ve been throughout my career to always be in winning equipment, there’s just no desire to get in equipment that you can’t win in,” Kenseth said. “For me, it is all about, you know, having fun. Winning is fun.”

Roush Fenway Racing, where Kenseth spent 16 seasons and won Cup rookie of the year, his championship and both Daytona victories, lured him back to the track in 2018 in a part-time role. The organization was rebuilding and wanted Kenseth’s knowledge around. He ran 15 races in slow cars, had just a pair of top-10 finishes and led only five laps.

So he was done. Until he got the call from the Ganassi organization and was offered a seat in a car capable of winning races; Larson was a six-time winner and through four races this year was seventh in the standings. Kenseth saw a chance to get back to victory lane.

“Where I am today, I mean, I accomplished way more than I ever thought I would accomplish in my career, but I still feel like I have unfinished business and things I want to do,” he said. “The competition and working with a team that’s really dedicated and working hard to win races and trying to be part of a piece of that puzzle to try to have success, that appeals to me.”

He will be reunited with former Roush teammate Kurt Busch, who is in his second season with Ganassi and won a championship in 2004 to give Roush back-to-back titles. He talked with Busch prior to accepting the Ganassi offer and is excited to work with “one of the best teammates I ever had.

“He’s very unselfish and he doesn’t doesn’t skimp on anything,” Kenseth said. “That was part of the attraction as well, especially as a two-car team. Are you getting a good teammate to work with? I knew the answer already.”

Kenseth’s hiring was a shock to the industry but a very popular move among fans. Ganassi was pleased because he wanted a low-maintenance driver capable of winning races who could placate nervous sponsors after the Larson debacle.

Kenseth is trying to temper expectations. He has never competed in a Chevrolet at the Cup level, has not driven NASCAR’s current aerodynamic package and will likely have to jump right into the car and race when the series resumes. NASCAR is expected to return to the track May 17 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina in a one-day event that might not include qualifying or practice.

He’s a previous Southern 500 winner at Darlington as well as a Coca-Cola 600 winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the first two tracks expected to be on NASCAR’s revised schedule. Kenseth has also been granted a waiver by NASCAR that makes him eligible to race for the championship should he qualify for the playoffs.

“It would be pretty bad if I get out there and really suck,” Kenseth said. “So the first few weeks, at least the first week, I’m trying to keep our expectations low because if we’re really going to these races and all these places with no practice, that’s going to be a slow adjustment to me.

“Hopefully it doesn’t take too long and I can get some wins and really do something with this team the rest of the year.”

And then will he retire again?

“Who knows? No one knows anything at this point,” Kenseth said. “Two weeks ago I was training for the London marathon and not even thinking about racing. Now I’m a NASCAR driver again.”