Once one of NASCAR’s foremost faces, Matt Kenseth is in danger of being phased out of the sport altogether solely on his age. (Jerry Markland/Getty Images photo)
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Martin Truex, Jr. won Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway and advanced into the Round of 8 in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. However, two of his main Championship competitors were eliminated following Sunday’s race. Both of these drivers, who are very different points in their careers, offer an interesting look into the changes that the NASCAR driver lineup is currently undergoing.
For Kyle Larson, a driver who has shown championship-calibre speed throughout the season, it was a surprise elimination that was the result of a blown engine on lap 73. Larson has more wins in 2017 than anyone besides Martin Truex, Jr., and was looking forward to competing at Homestead-Miami, where he led the most laps in last year’s race. All variables seemed to point to a run for the Championship, but now, he is the first surprise elimination of these playoffs.
In being eliminated, Larson recognised that as unfortunate as his case was, he is not the only one to have run well and been eliminated early in NASCAR’s current points format. “I’m not stunned because freak things happen in every sport”, he said. “I mean you look at every year in the past and a lot of times, most every time at least in the new Playoff format era not always does the best team win. Things happen”.
“You look at the past playoffs and the No. 78 had an engine issue last year and he was the best car all year; and then us, this year. Not saying we are the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. So, I’m not stunned, because it is a long 10 race Playoff season, so anything can happen, but we have had a solid Playoffs. We have been consistent and just now got bit.”
While the early exit in a career year is unfortunate, Larson will have many more chances to win a championship. At 25, he has already proven to be one of the best young drivers in NASCAR, and has backing from a successful team owner in Chip Ganassi. Given that most NASCAR drivers can be competitive until around age 45, it’s easy to think that Larson will be part of the NASCAR narrative for the next 20 years.
Coincidentally, the other driver of note that was eliminated happens to be 45 years old already. Matt Kenseth lost his chance to run for a title on circumstances that he had no control over. After being involved in the race’s largest accident on lap 199, he came down to pit road for service. As he arrived, seven pit crew members went over the wall to service his car – one more than is allowed in the NASCAR rulebook. The penalty for having too many men over the wall is the retirement of the car in question; Kenseth’s race – and championship hopes – were immediately finished.
It was a point of controversy amongst the NASCAR community, as the rule in question was only changed at the start of the 2017 season. NASCAR’s intent was to increase the safety for pit crew members by keeping as many of them off of pit road as possible. Only at this point in the season was the rule brought under such a bright spotlight.
Even Kenseth sounded confused post-race. “I don’t know what any of the rules are. Honestly, I’ve never heard of disqualifying somebody from a race if you got one too many guys over the wall or whatever happened there”, he said. “Seems like we got a lot of stuff that kind of gets, you know, changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it. My head kind of spins from putting lugnuts out of pit boxes to one to many guys over the wall, you’re not allowed to race anymore. I just don’t get it to be honest with you. I really don’t have a lot good to say right now. I’m more than disappointed”.
The question for Kenseth is “what now?”, following the announcement earlier this year that he would leave the No. 20 at the end of the 2017 season. He has no ride lined up for 2018, and may well be running the final four races of an 18-year-long Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career.
There is a large dose of irony in Kenseth’s case. He was brought into the series as a 27-year-old in 2000, which was considered young for a driver at the time. He, along with the likes of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, brought in a new era of drivers, in which experience was traded for the ability to mould young talent into superstardom.
Next year, the driver taking Kenseth’s seat is the 21-year-old Erik Jones. The man who was once one of NASCAR’s young stars has aged to become a grizzled veteran, and would be the first major driver in the post-Winston Cup era to be forced out of the series on age alone if he can’t find a ride for 2018.
Larson will be back for another championship run in 2018, and will be a preliminary favourite amongst the odds makers in Las Vegas. But Kenseth might be done for good. If he is, it will complete the changeover into the new generation of drivers – he and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are the last drivers in the series who also competed in it before the year 2000, and “Junior” has already announced his retirement following 2017.
An interesting picture, then, of the crossroads that NASCAR finds itself at in terms of talent. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth are its past; drivers like Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, and Chase Elliott are its future.