<
>

Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch racing for more than championship

Kurt Busch needs a sponsor, or his current sponsor to renew, if he's going to stay with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne have a championship in their sights, but their futures are unclear.

The 2017 lame-duck drivers -- Busch could still return to his current team in 2018 but the others know they're out -- admit the atmosphere is a little different as they enter this year's playoffs, but the attitude when it comes to racing remains the same.

"At times, it's crossed my mind, "Are you going to race or not next year at some of these places?'" Kenseth said. "[As in], 'Ah, it might be the last time I run the Southern 500 -- it really would be cool to get a win.'

"You think about some of that stuff maybe when you leave but certainly not on that weekend. I don't think the pressure is any different. I don't think the preparation is any different. I think you go out and do the best you can and hope it's good enough."

Kenseth, at 45, faces a much more uncertain future than Busch or Kahne. Busch, whose option at Stewart-Haas Racing was not picked up for 2018 because it is waiting on sponsor Monster Energy to decide on its 2018 plans, knows the possibility of returning to the organization has not closed.

Kahne, who is 37, appears in deep negotiations with Leavine Family Racing, and while he is being replaced by William Byron at Hendrick Motorpsorts, he knows it's in Hendrick's best interest to find him a ride for 2018 or else Hendrick is on the hook for his 2018 buyout.

Kenseth is being replaced by Erik Jones at Joe Gibbs Racing, and he very well could find himself on the sideline amid the silly-season musical chairs.

"You never know when that last time is," Kenseth said about whether this is his last chance for a second championship. "I'm glad that we have a chance this year. ... Hopefully we just have mistake-free races and get results and move on [through the playoffs]."

Busch said this is the time that will test a driver's leadership skills.

"It's my job to show them -- and I've done that since the break [in mid-August] -- on we're going there to win, we're going there to execute as a team, and we're going to get all we can out of this playoff run knowing that there are some variables still out there as far as my contract and where the sponsorship will all line up," Busch said.

"It's a matter of just focusing on the task at hand and that's each practice, each qualifying session and each race."

Drivers know eventually they will run out of opportunities to win the championship. Busch doesn't feel this is his last chance.

"I feel like there are plenty more opportunities for championships to happen, but with the unknown you have to utilize the present," Busch said. "And it's not looking at the past, it's not looking at the future -- it's living in the present."

That is the attitude Kahne said he will have. He hasn't run well this year but a win at Indianapolis vaulted him into the playoffs.

"It's definitely going to be different," Kahne said. "I have 10 races left for Hendrick Motorsports. It's kind of sad in a way, and in another way, there's things that I need to look forward to and move on and do.

"All I can really do at this point is look forward, look at every one of these races and just put everything I have into it and try to finish up the best that I possibly can because the team I have is capable of doing so much better than what we have to this point and it would be really nice to finish really strong with every one of them."

Of all the drivers, Kahne might be in the most difficult position. For the past couple of years, rumors have swirled about his job security. He couldn't talk to other teams until Hendrick informed him in early August that he didn't have a ride for 2018.

"It's actually kind of miserable at times ... because of the way that it's went down with some of my stuff and that doesn't help anybody," Kahne said. "It doesn't help the team, doesn't help the driver, doesn't help anybody, but that is the way that it went.

"So at this point in time I actually feel as good as I have about anything knowing that I'm in the playoffs, knowing that we are going to swing for the fences and do the best job we possibly can these final 10 races and then move on to hopefully a great place, a happy place, and enjoy that."

Kahne, like Busch, is optimistic this isn't his last playoff run.

"I hope there's other opportunities down the road," Kahne said. "I'm still young. I'm 37 years old and still have a lot left in me."

The biggest danger they all might face is trying to do too much because of the circumstances. Kenseth said a driver must focus on just driving to the ability of himself and the car.

"As soon as you try to do better than the best you can is when you get in trouble all the time and make mistakes," Kenseth said. "You've just got to go out and do the things you know how to do and hope to get results."