The 45-year-old driver is being replaced in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota next season by 21-year-old Erik Jones. The 2003 NASCAR champion has options to drive other cars in the series next season, but they aren’t the caliber of machines or with the crews to which Kenseth has been accustomed with Gibbs.
Likely at the end of a great career, he will retire as an underrated driver — something he proved again Sunday at Phoenix.
Kenseth outdueled young driver Chase Elliott to win the Can-Am 500 for his 39th career Monster Energy Cup Series victory. It tied him with one of the sport’s early pioneers, Tim Flock, for 19th on the all-time NASCAR win list.
His career includes two Daytona 500 victories, three wins in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol and one win each in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington.
Kenseth is also a 29-time race winner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. In addition, he was the 2004 IROC champion one year after being the last NASCAR champion of the pre-Chase era.
Compared to Junior
Throughout his career, Kenseth has been linked to Dale Earnhardt Jr. as both drivers made their debuts in 1999 and competed for Rookie of the Year the following season.
The Cambridge, Wisc., driver beat Earnhardt in the rookie standings and stacks up favorably to NASCAR’s most popular driver over their respective careers.
While both are two-time Daytona 500 winners, Kenseth has more career wins (39-26), career poles (20-15) and better finishes in the year-long standings. Kenseth has a championship and two runner-up points finishes, while Earnhardt’s best season was third in 2003.
If this is the end of his career, then Kenseth leaves with an outstanding record at Bristol Motor Speedway.
He has four wins and 22 top-10 finishes in 36 Cup Series races at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.” Kenseth also won three races and posted 11 top-10s in 18 Xfinity Series races at Bristol.
A strong finish
Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, a pair of other drivers in Kenseth’s age bracket, have better career numbers than Kenseth. However, if you compare the last five years of their respective careers, Kenseth has finished his career stronger.
Gordon did have the chance to compete for a championship his final race at Homestead, but that came after Kenseth’s intentional wreck of Joey Logano at Martinsville that 2015 season.
Overall, Kenseth has won 15 races since switching from Roush-Fenway Racing to the Gibbs team. Gordon won 11 races over his final five full-time seasons and Stewart had five wins over the controversial final years of his career.
Kenseth still has a passion for the sport, evident by his tussle with Logano at the end of the Martinsville race and a post-race confrontation with Brad Keselowski the previous year. The emotion at the end of Sunday’s race was uncharacteristic for Kenseth, but it showed how much it meant to him.
“It couldn’t be any sweeter,” Kenseth said. “You always feel you can get the job done, and we needed to go out and get us a win and we were able to do that. Everybody dreams of going out a winner. I don’t know what to say except to thank the Lord. It’s been an amazing journey.”
Season finale for Finchum
Former Kingsport Speedway champion Chad Finchum will be making his seventh NASCAR Xfinity Series start this season for Carl Long's MBM Motorsports team this Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The 23-year-old Knoxville driver has raced at Indianapolis, Dover, Kentucky, Bristol and Charlotte this season. In underfunded equipment, he has been running at the end of four races with a best finish of 28th at Bristol.
"I can't thank Carl Long enough for the opportunities he's given me this year to drive for MBM Motorsports," Finchum said while preparing to leave for Florida. "Carl took a chance on me being a rookie that I would be able to get the job done behind the wheel driving his equipment, and I believe that he and I, along with the whole race team, have really formed a good relationship and work together very well. We've had some pretty good runs this season and I'm just very thankful for the races I've gotten to drive for MBM Motorsports.”