Matt Kenseth focused on turning season around amid sponsor talk, retirement rumors

Team owner Joe Gibbs says he expects to have Matt Kenseth back on the track racing in 2018. Alex Gallardo/AP Photo

Matt Kenseth joked Wednesday afternoon that he could see himself driving another 15 years. Maybe even 20.

The 45-year-old continues to answer questions about his future with a little bit of sarcasm and a little bit of stubbornness. He knows his NASCAR Cup career, nearly entering its 20th year, won't last too much longer. But just how much longer Kenseth will continue behind the wheel apparently remains to be determined.

"If I was going to do something like [retire], I wouldn't call a press conference for it. I probably just wouldn't show up at Daytona and just have everybody say, 'Is Matt racing this week?' Or I would send out, like, a four-word tweet."
Matt Kenseth, on rumors that he was calling it quits from racing

As Carl Edwards proved with his sudden (and at-least-temporary) retirement in January, a change can occur at any time. With the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 car now having deals with DeWalt and Circle K running into 2018, it seems Kenseth has solid footing if he wants to continue racing. If not solid footing, it's footing that is at least as sticky as the stuff Bristol Motor Speedway officials put on the lower groove this weekend in hopes of adding grip.

So, much like heading into Bristol hoping to lead the way through the crazy speeds and traffic amid 2,000 turns, Kenseth approaches the questions to his future as if he hopes to continue going in circles.

"It's always my hope [to return]," Kenseth said Wednesday when the six-race Circle K deal was announced. "The details of the [years on the] sponsorship, I honestly don't know."

Kenseth seemed a little surprised at all the speculation in the last week, although JGR's media alert on the Circle K announcement did not mention a sponsorship announcement or a car unveil -- just a news conference with Kenseth and Gibbs at the Hall of Fame. That led to wild speculation of a possible retirement, including a story on a fake news site, with rumors running amok in the racing industry.

"I don't know where that stuff comes from," Kenseth said. "If I was going to do something like [retire], I wouldn't call a press conference for it. I probably just wouldn't show up at Daytona and just have everybody say, 'Is Matt racing this week?'

"Or I would send out, like, a four-word tweet."

It's not as if the speculation is totally unfounded. With Erik Jones at Furniture Row Racing as part of a one-year deal, the question has loomed on whether Jones would replace Kenseth after this season (Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have deals through at least 2019). But if Jones moves to JGR, he most likely can't bring sponsor 5-Hour Energy with him unless Monster Energy approves a transfer -- and if 5-Hour Energy would want to be part of an organization that already has Nos as a sponsor on the Xfinity side.

Team owner Joe Gibbs also indicated Wednesday that he expects Kenseth to return in 2018.

"He's on that bike all the time now, he's in probably as good a shape as he has been in his life and I know he has a burning desire to keep driving," Gibbs said. "Our hope is he is with us and we continue in the future. That's kind of our game plan [for next year].

"That's certainly what we hope -- that's certainly what we're working towards."

But also watching the first part of 2017 might make some wonder whether Kenseth is ready for a different life, one without the two hard crashes he has had this year amid a frustrating start to the season. He sits 22nd in the standings with one top-5, three top-10s and three finishes of 36th or worse. Kenseth hasn't led a lap in any of the seven races.

"I really don't know why -- we've just been off on our speed a little bit and just been kind of missing setups on race day," Kenseth said. "We've kind of been battling a different version of the same thing every week, which in a way is good because we know what we need to work on."

Gibbs said the organization has identified five areas (he didn't say which ones) it will focus on to improve performance. JGR still seeks its first win of 2017, and Bristol has been a place where its drivers have thrived.

Kenseth has four career wins at Bristol, including the April race two years ago. He has 20 top-10s in 34 career Bristol races, but he has finished 42nd, 36th, 37th in his past three Bristol starts.

"It's kind of feast or famine for us there," Kenseth said. "I do enjoy it. I always look forward to going there. ... I don't think I finished either race there last year. So you just never know what is going to happen."

The Circle K sponsorship at least was a little bit of good news for Kenseth. Even at six races a year, Kenseth still has seven Cup races unsponsored this year. The team lost primary sponsor Dollar General for 2017 and has filled the bulk of that with more races from DeWalt, plus a few races here and there from Peak and Tide.

Kenseth tries to let those working to find sponsorship worry about that, and he'll try to concentrate on the race car.

"I've been more worried about how to get our season turned around and get back to running up front and hopefully winning some races," Kenseth said.