AVONDALE, Ariz. — The love taps on the side of the car, those bumps from behind — it may not look like it, but those maneuvers are all about respect.
So as Matt Kenseth, who won Sunday’s Can-Am 500 race at Phoenix International Speedway, took his victory lap around the track, all those little ticks and hits to his winning No. 20 car weren’t disgruntled other drivers. They were, in NASCAR terms, props.
And they continued after Kenseth’s spinout (almost certainly the last of his storied NASCAR career), and also after he took the checkered flag in front of hundreds of cheering fans, and even after he got out of his car and walked down pit road to Victory Lane. Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney … it was a revolving door of congratulatory high-fives or pats on the back.
“It was pretty neat to have a lot of your peers come and congratulate you, and even at the end to be able to drive by all the fans and … actually hear them yelling over the car and hear them in the window,” said Kenseth, a Cambridge, Wis., native. “I mean, it was just a really, really special day for a lot of reasons.”
But why? Why all the hoopla for a driver who has been out of the playoffs for weeks and who won’t race for a championship next Sunday?
It’s simple — it’s about Kenseth’s legacy. He’s 45. He won a Cup Series championship in 2003 and came close to getting another in other seasons. He’s consistently in the playoffs and has a shot to win almost every weekend. He hadn’t won in his past 51 races.
And now his career is over.
Even with this last win on Sunday, Kenseth is through after next weekend at Homestead. He won’t return to Joe Gibbs Racing next year and hasn’t signed to ride for another team, meaning this is almost definitely the end — even if he wishes it weren’t.
“There’s not a lot of people that get to go out like this,” said Kenseth, who grew up racing at Wisconsin short tracks, including the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway. “It’s not that there hasn’t been any opportunities and nothing opened, it’s just nothing really felt right to me.
“I probably fought it for too long and kind of looked at different opportunities and thought about doing something different, but then just really embraced it, and not many people get to go out in really good cars and win races.”
Could Kenseth theoretically drive for another few years? If Sunday’s result is to be believed, then absolutely. But without the proper sponsorship or any availability on a top team, that doesn’t matter. Instead, he’ll get to appreciate being the rare driver who knows when they get their final win and can celebrate it appropriately.
Coming into Sunday’s race, Kenseth wasn’t being touted as a potential winner by the general public or pundits, but within his own team, there was confidence dating from Saturday’s practice.
“Occasionally over the last five years we’ll have a Saturday practice like the one we had yesterday where Matt comes in, he never even uses the word ‘perfect,’ ” Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth’s crew chief, said, “but occasionally he’ll say … ‘man, the entry is pretty good, it turns pretty good, the exit’ … he almost said ‘perfect’ yesterday. Occasionally you’ll get one of those.
“So I knew when we left here last night, we came in this morning, we didn’t do anything really to speak of.”
Kenseth was clearly onto something on Saturday. He ran well throughout the afternoon Sunday, staying near the front of the pack and occasionally jumping up to the lead, but it wasn’t until almost the very end of the race that he made his final move. He passed Chase Elliott with about 10 laps to go and was able to hold onto the lead from there. Then, once he’d crossed the finish line and broken out into tears, all the “respect” came pouring in.
Eventually Kenseth made his way up to the media center to do interviews, to be the center of attention one last time. He mentioned how special this win was, how he has finally accepted his future, and repeated how much it meant to have the clear support from so many other people.
And then like clockwork, his pit crew burst into the room to continue the celebrations. There were more high-fives, a small ruckus, and then as they filed out, shouting.
Kenseth followed them, raising his hand to thank the media one last time. And then, as his crew bounded out of the room and hollered, “Way to go, Matt” one last time, Kenseth finally made his exit — from the room, the track, and from the sport he’s known most of his life.
“It was pretty neat to have a lot of your peers come and congratulate you, and even at the end to be able to drive by all the fans ...” Matt Kenseth, Cambridge, Wis., native, on winning Sunday’s Cup race