Matt Kenseth says he isn't sure where he’ll be driving in 2018, but it won’t be Joe Gibbs Racing.
“As of today I do not have a job for next year,” the 2003 NASCAR Cup Series champion from Cambridge,Wis., said Friday at Kentucky Speedway. “I certainly hope to still be racing.
“I haven’t really worked on anything real hard. I don't think I'll have the option to race at JGR next year, unfortunately.”
Kenseth, 45, has won 14 races for Gibbs since arriving in 2013, including seven that first season. He spent his first 13 full-time Cup seasons at Roush Fenway Racing (initially Roush Racing), for which he was rookie of the year in 2000 and won 24 races, including the 2009 and 2012 Daytona 500.
It seems likely Gibbs plans to replace Kenseth in its No. 20 Toyota with Erik Jones, who is in the middle of his rookie Cup season with the JGR-affiliated Furniture Row Racing.
Jones, 21, said Thursday also at Kentucky he hadn’t been told yet what car he’d drive next year but expected to learn soon. The decision is up to Gibbs. But Toyota and Gibbs appeared to have a progression plan in mind for Jones already two or three years ago.
All of Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled this season, not scoring a single Monster Energy NASCAR Cup victory with its four drivers. Kyle Busch ranks third in points, Denny Hamlin ninth, Kenseth 11th and rookie Daniel Suarez 18th. The only two Toyota victories have come from Martin Truex Jr., Jones’ FRR teammate.
Kenseth has just three top-five finishes this season and is right near the line between making the 16-driver playoffs and failing to qualify.
“It has not been a good year at all,” Kenseth said. “Not nearly up to my standards or my team’s standards. You know really trying to get back to victory lane. Hopefully get qualified for the playoffs here and have a shot at a championship is pretty much focus at this point.”
A win would almost certainly put Kenseth into the playoffs. Next week will reach the one-year anniversary of Kenseth’s most recent victory.
“I think I got some wins left in me and hopefully can race for championships,” he said. “Right now my focus is on finishing up this year.”
Rides that still are open for 2018 or are considered possibilities to become available include: Front Row No. 77 (assuming Jones moves to the Gibbs No. 20); Hendrick No. 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring) and No. 5 (sponsorship questions for Kasey Kahne); Stewart Haas No. 10 (depending on sponsorship for Danica Patrick); and Petty No. 43 (Aric Almirola’s contract ends).
Kenseth was asked specifically about the 88. He was close with Earnhardt when they were coming up through the then-Busch (now Xfinity) Series and has become good friends with Jimmie Johnson, who has won seven championships with Hendrick.
“I probably already said too much about what I’m not doing next year,” he said, “so I don’t really have anything to talk about for what I'm doing.”
Before the season, Kenseth faced the usual questions about how much longer he might continue to race.
Kenseth was more contemplative than in previous years, saying he had talked with Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards about how they arrived at their decisions and had wondered how he’d know when it was time.
“Do you just wake up one day and feel like, man, I don’t really want to do this anymore?” he said at the time. “Or do you have that day when you’re running bad and they look at you like, I don’t want you driving anymore because you’re running bad?”
Otherwise Kenseth’s answer was generally the same as it has been for years: As long as he’s having fun and competitive and as long as Gibbs will have him.
But now the second part of the equation has changed.