Kentucky might not have been the most exciting Cup race (to be fair it was dreadful), but the sport reached a crucial milestone during the weekend in Sparta. The 2017 Cup season is now halfway over.
Like every other NASCAR season, this one has had some high points and low points. Everyone likes a first time winner. This year we’ve had three of them with Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Chase Elliott hasn’t made that list yet, but there are a lot of veteran drivers who would love to have had a season as good as Elliott’s to date. Martin Truex Jr. has certainly asserted himself not just as a playoff contender, but a prohibitive favorite at this point in the season. Recall Truex has dominated at the mile-and-a-half cookie cutter tracks and five of 10 playoff races are held on the mile-and-a-halves.
If Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans were expecting their boy to go out in a blaze of glory in his final full time Cup season, the kindest thing that can be said is that he’s underachieving to date, and it’s going to take a miracle of Bon Jovi proportions for Earnhardt to sneak into the playoffs. Well, the angels left Junior Nation and salvation caught the last train out tonight. He lost a hell of a fight
Even more notable is that after 18 races the entire Joe Gibbs Racing squad hasn’t managed a single Cup victory and at times they’ve looked hapless. At this point last year the four JGR teams had combined to win seven races and all four of their drivers had scored at least one win. It’d be easy to say the Toyotas are at some sort of disadvantage but not with Truex and his Camry running as well as they are.
Daniel Suarez gets a bye this year. In addition to being a rookie, he also found out at the last moment he’d be competing in the Cup series after Carl Edwards’ surprise retirement announcement. Edwards won three Cup races last year and arrived a Homestead with a shot at the title. That would have been rather lofty expectations for any rookie driver to match. Maybe Edwards knew something the rest of us were overlooking because he surely made it into the lifeboat ahead of the line.
JGR is typically a key player in the Cup Series. Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth have won titles. Denny Hamlin has come close to doing so. In addition their crew chiefs, teams, and the infamous “boys back at the shop” are used to racking up race wins and contending for titles annually. While every team today (and throughout the sport’s history actually) experiences ups and downs, the valleys can tear teams apart. Fingers start getting pointed. Accusations are made. Men who were like brothers give up on one another.
I don’t know what finally made Joe Gibbs decide to part ways with Kenseth after this season. In listening to his remarks it doesn’t sound like Kenseth knows what led to the decision either. He simply stated that returning to JGR next year wasn’t an option open to him any longer. Kenseth went on to say that he’d been aware he wouldn’t be back in the 20 car in 2018 since about a month ago. Since joining Gibbs in 2013 Kenseth has posted 14 wins and 87 top-10 finishes. He finished second in the points in 2013 and fifth in the standings last year. Obviously this year hasn’t gone to plan for the No. 20 bunch, but it’s not like his teammates are racking up wins either. But this is a less pleasant aspect of the sport. Doubtless it was difficult for Kenseth to decide back at the end of 2012 he was leaving Jack Roush’s team seeking greener pastures.
What did catch me off guard was a lot of people expecting that Kenseth would likely retire due to this loss of a ride. Retire? In my mind Kenseth is still one of the kids. As it turns out he’s 45 years old. Tony Stewart chose to retire at 45. Jeff Gordon retired at 43 but came back to fill in for a few races last year at 44. Earnhardt Jr. is 42 and on his way out. Jimmie Johnson is 41 and not even discussing how many more years he might still compete at the Cup level.
But I suppose Kenseth may in fact be old in that I was young when he started NASCAR racing and I’m well on in my years now. As it so happens I was standing near the entrance to pit road at Rockingham (sigh) in 1998 when Kenseth, then a virtual unknown, booted no less a driver than Stewart out of the way in the final corner of the final lap to take his first XFINITY Series victory. The car he was driving that day was owned by Robby Reiser, who oddly enough, had been a fierce rival to Kenseth back on the short tracks in the Midwest. I was also there when Kenseth won at Dover later that season. That same weekend Kenseth made his Cup debut, filling in for Bill Elliott after Elliott’s father passed away. Kenseth finished sixth in that debut race.
In 1998 Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. began a competitive friendship that raged the next two years in the XFINITY Series. It was like something Hollywood might have dreamt up along the lines of the Odd Couple or the Patty Duke Show. Earnhardt was the son of racing royalty, outgoing and talkative, and seldom late for the next party. Kenseth was a Yankee, somewhat reserved and taciturn in most instances. But the unlikely duo put on some incredible shows for the fans and seemed tight at least off the track.
I was working a race down at Dover the day after Earnhardt had wrecked Kenseth who had been leading the race at the time. Of course the headlines were “Earnhardt Wins!” not “Kenseth Robbed!” In the immediate aftermath of the incident Kenseth hadn’t had much to say. Sunday morning I found him standing alone in the garage area looking bored and out of place. Since the wreck had deep championship implications I figured there was a story there. I asked Kenseth if I might ask him a few questions. He shrugged and asked “Why?” I told him I was a reporter and he rolled his eyes but stuck around to answer the questions. He didn’t seem angry but my guess is that he was more than a little annoyed both at Earnhardt and me at that moment. He agreed that it was unfortunate what had happened and that he and his Earnhardt were going to have to talk one day that week to work things out. But, he admitted, he still considered Earnhardt a friend.
Earnhardt Jr. went on to win the XFINITY titles in 1998 and 1999 while Kenseth finished second in ’98 and third in ’99. The two moved up to Cup full time in 2000, Kenseth driving for Roush and Earnhardt driving for his dad’s team DEI. Earnhardt was the first of the pair to score a Cup victory at Texas in April and again in May at Richmond. Kenseth won that month in the World 600. Throughout the year Kenseth, seemed pleased that Earnhardt was the focus of all the media frenzy while he was able to go about his business more quietly. At the end of the year Kenseth edged Earnhardt for Rookie of the Year honors.
Yep, it doesn’t seem like that was all that long ago. Kenseth went on to claim a Cup title in 2003, a feat that has eluded Earnhardt to date and doesn’t appear likely this season. As of right now Kenseth has won 38 points paying Cup races while Junior has won 26. It’s a little closer in top fives with Kenseth again having the edge 174 to 149. Kenseth also has a better career long average finish of 14.2 to Earnhardt’s 15.7.
While in my mind it hasn’t been that long since this Dynamic Duo started in the Cup series a quick look at the statistics indicates otherwise. No other driver in Saturday night’s race was running full time in the Cup Series when Earnhardt and Kenseth started. Only Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman ran any Cup races in 2000 and both were involved with part time efforts.
There are some rumors that Kenseth might end up taking his old friend’s ride in No. 88 HMS Chevy next year. There’d be a certain symmetry to that even if Kenseth is just keeping that seat warm for a year or two until William Byron is ready to move up to the Cup level. (Let’s recall Byron graduated high school last year.)
Whatever he chooses to do I’ll likely support Kenseth’s decision. 45 isn’t that old, even though I thought that was ancient back when I was 25. But as Kenseth and a growing number of drivers approaching the end of their Cup careers have to realize, it’s always better to retire and leave them guessing how many more races you might have won rather than sticking around too long and proving you were done.