Like a book, there’s a front and back, a beginning and end to a driver’s career.
The beginning is created from determination, enthusiasm and commitment.
The end is often a mystery.
That’s how I would describe Matt Kenseth announcing he has no plans to compete next year, but stopping short of retiring.
It was a very similar expression from Kenseth to what we heard at the beginning of the year from Carl Edwards. Haven’t seen much of Edwards lately, and I don’t expect we will.
Matt Kenseth is a buddy of mine. Not once have I asked him if he was retiring. Not once have I felt compelled to. You see, I’ve experienced it.
In 2005, I was recruited from the couch by Jack Roush to compete in the Truck series, and in Roush’s words, be an heir apparent for the No. 6 car when Mark Martin retired.
I was lured back by the appeal of competing once again in a top-notch Cup car. By midseason I had come to grips with the realization that wasn’t going to happen, and I consequently made up my mind to retire at season’s end.
October provided an opportunity for me to sign off with the greatest of dignity. I was standing in Victory Lane in Martinsville and wanted to tell the world that I was done in just a few races, but I didn’t have the courage, nor did I have the will to surrender.
I just don’t know many drivers capable of walking away on their own terms.
Perhaps Tony Stewart, but you have to wonder about the emotional toll he paid the last few seasons of his career. You could say Jeff Gordon, but you have to ask yourself, why did he come back within a year to substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
Rusty Wallace walked away on his own terms, but shared with me personally that he wondered on occasion why he quit so soon.
Martin tried to retire several times, but the fact was he was just too damn productive to walk away.
Not sure when Dale Earnhardt would have retired. I sure wish he would’ve gotten the opportunity. His son is retiring in less than two weeks, but it’s not as though he was ready to do it mentally, but rather he has to surrender physically. Junior has soldiered through all of 2018 like a champ.
I don’t think his head has been in the game nearly as much as his heart. It feels as though he has dedicated the season to all those who supported him, shown allegiance to him and inspired him to be the most popular driver our sport has ever experienced.
Kenseth has been very fortunate to stay healthy his entire career. He’s a winner capable of winning right now, absolutely capable of winning next year.
But the demise of a race car driver’s career is often associated with the word “diminishing,” as in diminishing skills, diminishing focus, or in Kenseth’s case, diminishing opportunity.
I’m often asked by people if I miss driving, and I give the same response to everyone. No!
But I miss competing, and expect I will miss competing the rest of my life.
You see, the best part of being a race car driver was always knowing where you stood, because the scoreboard and the points standings seldom lie.
I have no doubt in my mind that Kenseth will miss competing, but he won’t necessarily miss the grind associated with competing.
I chose to write this article this week to try to bring clarity to how a driver as talented as Kenseth can be staring into the face of unemployment.
Fact is, I can’t bring clarity other than to say our sport has a sense of creating and eliminating opportunity for its drivers, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how little control you have over it.
Kenseth came into our sport as someone else was leaving, he contributed mightily, and he recognized success seen by very few.
There’s an old expression — if you ask someone with money saved, how much they need to retire, the answer often is just a little bit more. It’s always just a little bit more.
I think that’s the way it feels to be a race car driver. If I asked how much longer do you plan to drive, the common answer would be just a little bit longer.