Matt Kenseth out at Joe Gibbs Racing with no job for 2018 - yet
SPARTA, Ky. - The first domino has fallen in what promises to be NASCAR's most enthralling "silly season."
In a question-and-answer session with reporters on Friday morning at Kentucky Speedway, Matt Kenseth confirmed that he has no job for next year and doesn't expect to return to Joe Gibbs Racing.
"I don't have a ride at this moment for next year," said Kenseth, in advance of Saturday's Quaker State 400 (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN). "I really haven't worked on anything real hard, but I do not think I will have the option to race at JGR next year, unfortunately."
That doesn't mean Kenseth plans to retire from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
"I certainly hope to still be racing," he said. "I think I've got some wins left in me, and hopefully I can race for championships, but right now my focus is on finishing up this year. As we talked about, it's been kind of a slow start.
"It hasn't been a good year at all, not nearly up to my standards or my team's standards. Really trying to get back to Victory Lane, hopefully trying to get qualified for the playoffs here and have a shot at the championship is pretty much my focus at this point."
Kenseth's exit from the No. 20 JGR Toyota doubtless will amplify speculation that Erik Jones will leave the No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Camry to take that seat.
As to Kenseth's future, his name has been mentioned as a possible short-term solution for the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring from full-time racing at the end of the season.
But Kenseth was mum on that subject.
"I've really probably said too much about what I'm not doing next year, so I really don't have anything to say about what I am doing at this point," Kenseth said. "At this point, I don't have anything going on for next year, and I'm pretty focused on trying to get running better this year and winning some races."
Kenseth and Earnhardt were both rookies in 2000, but Earnhardt doesn't expect his fellow driver to follow him into retirement just yet.
"Matt is going to have a job," Earnhardt said emphatically. "I don't think he's got to worry about that. I think that it's smart for him to let everybody know early what his plans are or the lack thereof. He is a talented guy who is just a couple of races removed from being a winner and could show up any week and get to Victory Lane.
"I think that the situation with Gibbs, from an outsider looking in, is there's just not enough room. The Jones kid is probably going to come in there and take that ride, or there is some agreement beforehand possibly that that was what was going to happen.
"But Matt will get a job. He's so good and so talented that he will be in a great car with a great opportunity next year, no less than what he has this year."
DALE EARNHARDT JR. RECALLS THE ANNIVERSARY THAT CHANGED HIS LIFE
Last year's Quaker State 400 was the tipping point in Dale Earnhardt's season.
Not only that. The symptoms NASCAR's most popular driver suffered during race weekend at Kentucky Speedway brought him to a crossroads in his personal and professional life.
That was the weekend that concussion-like symptoms he first experienced in June at Michigan became so severe that Earnhardt was forced to step out of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the rest of the season.
Through an arduous rehabilitation, Earnhardt recovered and earned medical clearance to drive again. But he also married long-time girlfriend Amy Reimann during the offseason and experienced life outside the race car for an extended period of time.
Ultimately, Earnhardt decided the 2017 season would be his last as a full-time NASCAR driver.
As he returned to Kentucky on Friday, Earnhardt recalled the circumstances that started his life-changing decision process in motion.
"I was not feeling too good physically and, yeah, I've thought about that quite a bit just how big a difference it is from today compared to last year," he said. "It reminds you about how much we had to overcome and how much rehab went into trying to get healthy. And, yeah, this is where it all kind of started to come to the surface, where the symptoms and all that stuff started to be a concern.
"It's a bit of a reminder, and I'm proud that we worked so hard to come back and worked hard to get healthy. You start racing this year you kind of forget about last year, and I think we all do... we kind of forget about everything that happened and little dates like this will bring those memories back and remind you to be thankful and fortunate."
Late in Friday's final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, series leader Kyle Larson zoomed to the top of the speed chart, posting a lap at 188.186 - .980 mph faster than that of second-place Martin Truex Jr. "I thought in race trim we were pretty good," Larson said. "Then we switched to qualifying trim, and we were really fast." In other words, don't put it past the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet to win his third race of the season in Saturday night's Quaker State 400...
On Friday afternoon, entitlement sponsor Quaker State and Kentucky Speedway announced an extension of their partnership through 2022. Jim McCormick, vice president of Quaker State North America, pointed out that Kentucky Speedway was the perfect place for the Quaker State entitlement because the track and the motor oil share an inherent toughness. "This race has only been won by champions," McCormick said. In fact, the only winners in six events at the 1.5-mile speedway are Cup champions Brad Keselowski (3 victories), Kyle Busch (2) and Matt Kenseth.
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---