COMMENTARY: Kenseth's Departure Illustrates The Harsh Reality of Professional Sports

After 18 seasons at NASCAR’s highest level and with no quality rides open for the 2018 season, former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth says it’s time for some time off.
The 45-year old Wisconsin native told NBC Sports at Texas Motor Speedway Saturday that “I just don’t feel (a return is) in the cards.
“I’ve put a lot of thought into it and pretty much decided after Martinsville… to take some time off,” he added. “I don’t know if that’s forever, I don’t know if that’s a month, I don’t know if that’s five months, I don’t know if that’s two years.”
The 2003 MENCS champion is currently 10th in points after failing to advance to the Round of Eight two weeks ago. He is winless since New Hampshire in July of last year; a span of 51 races and confirmed in July that he will not return to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota next season, with youngster Erik Jones tabbed to fill that seat. Many observers assumed that the 38-time Cup Series winner would have no trouble finding a new ride for 2018 and beyond, but a changing economic climate and an influx of young driving talent appears set to relegate Kenseth to the sidelines, at least for now.
Unlike his 2013 move from Roush Fenway Racing to Gibbs, Kenseth said the decision was not entirely his own.
Kenseth: “Fighting it as long as I can.”
“Moving to Joe Gibbs, everybody was like, ‘Oh that must have been the hardest decision,’” he recalled. “Actually, it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. Both ends lined up. It lined up to not stay where I was for a whole bunch of different reasons, and it lined up to go (to JGR) for a whole bunch of different reasons. It was really easy.
“This one, I’ve been fighting it as long as I can. I’m like, ‘Man, once you’re done doing this, not many of us get to do this, especially at the top level.’
“I fought it for a long time.”
The 2003 MENCS champion said he saw the writing on the wall when team owner Rick Hendrick passed him over for the open seat in the No. 5 Chevrolet, in favor of youngster William Byron.
Byron takes the 20 next season
“When Rick put William in the 5 car and I didn’t get that opportunity… that should have been my biggest clue,” he said. “That was one I thought maybe I would get… hopefully go over there and get that car running better. I felt like I could really do that, and maybe mentor some of the young drivers coming along. That (decision) should have been the cold water in my face.”
Sources close to the situation say that in addition to a glut of a glut of young, talented drivers like Byron, Kenseth’s desire to land another top-quality MENCS ride was adversely impacted by his own salary demands. As a 19-year veteran of the Monster Energy Series, a former series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner, Kenseth has certain justifiable expectations when it comes to compensation.
No less than Dale Earnhardt, Jr., sounded the alarm recently, warning that veteran drivers will almost certainly make less money in coming years than they have in the past. Some drivers have accepted that economic reality, renegotiating their contracts and taking pay cuts. Others have not, and risk losing their seats to younger, less-expensive talents with longer potential shelf lives.
With major sponsors Farmer’s Insurance and Great Clips both announcing that they will not return to Hendrick’s No. 5 car next season, William Byron’s rookie price tag was almost certainly more palatable to HMS than that of Kenseth.
“Sometimes you can’t make your own decisions,” admitted Kenseth last week. “People make them for you. That’s unfortunate, because I wanted to make my own decisions. I felt like I’ve earned that — to be able to go out the way other drivers who had similar careers — to dictate when your time is up.
Headed for the NASCAR Hall Of Fame
“(But) I just came to the realization it’s probably time to go do something different.”
While refusing to use the word “retirement,” Kenseth said he knows that the 2017 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway – his 650th career MENCS start – could easily be his last. Like Ward Burton and Greg Biffle before him, Kenseth knows that “out of sight” in the NASCAR Garage often means “out of mind.”
Very few professional athletes get to choose their own exit strategy. For every John Elway or Ned Jarrett – champions who retired at the top of their respective games – there are dozens of Muhammad Alis and Darrell Waltrips, who stay a bit too long at the dance and are unceremoniously shown the door.
In NASCAR, the transition from “respected veteran” to “whatever happened to” trivia question can be especially swift. With only 40-odd seats in its premiere division – each dependent on tens of millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship – there’s a very thin line between hot property and has-been.
“Most likely, when you’re gone, you don’t get the opportunity again,” admitted Kenseth last week. “The retirement word doesn’t really make a lot of sense in this sport. It’s not like the NFL where you get a pension if you retire… so there’s really no reason to talk about it.”
If Kenseth has reached the end of his competitive road, a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame most certainly awaits. In addition to his 38 career Cup Series wins, there is the circuit’s 2000 Rookie of the Year crown, 29 Xfinity Series scores and a 2004 IROC title to pad his resume.
Is it right that a driver with Kenseth’s credentials sits on the sidelines while others — far younger and less proven — race on?
Probably not. But it is the harsh reality of professional sports.
“I’ll just take some time off, whatever that means,” said Kenseth. “I don’t know if that’s a year, two years, three months, four months. You never know what happens. Maybe something comes along that really makes you excited. (If) it feels like it’s going to be a fit, you might go do.
“I’m certainly not going to rule that out, but for now, I’m not making any plans for 2018. I just plan on having some time off.”

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