BRISTOL, Tenn. — It could have gotten very uncomfortable as Erik Jones and Matt Kenseth sat side-by-side shortly after an intriguing race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Both drivers wanted to win for very different reasons, both came up short, then circumstances put them together in a post-race news conference.
Jones, the rookie, was seeking his first Cup Series victory Saturday night. He wound up second to Kyle Busch, his soon-to-be teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. He started from the pole, led the most laps, and really needed that win to lock him into NASCAR’s playoffs.
Kenseth hasn’t won a Cup race in a little over a year and also could use an automatic berth into the playoffs. And, he’s on his way out at Gibbs — perhaps even NASCAR altogether — because Jones has been hired to drive Kenseth’s car next year.
So when Jones used his bumper to knock Kenseth out of the preferred driving lane at Bristol, a move that took Kenseth from contention to a fourth-place finish, things could been very awkward after the race.
But Kenseth smiled, cracked jokes, ribbed Jones a little bit and assured everyone that everything is just fine.
“I don’t really have anything to be unhappy about,” he said. “Things can turn on dime. But my life couldn’t be much better. I’ve never really been in a better place. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. There’s more to life than racing.”
Indeed, there is a lot more ahead for Kenseth, a father of four who turned 45 in March. His choices are just limited because of the rapid changing of the guard in NASCAR.
Almost overnight, the veterans are being squeezed out of the Cup Series because of the difficult economic climate in racing. Sponsors are very hard to come by, almost every driver needs to find some sort of his funding on his own, and corporate America’s current appetite is to back the young kids just breaking into the sport.
That’s fantastic news for car owners, who don’t have to shell out millions in driver salary to a veteran. Kenseth, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and former Cup champion, makes a lot of money. Jones, at just 21 years old, draws a fraction of Kenseth’s salary.
So even though he wants to keep driving, is a proven winner, still challenges for victories and is an asset to any race team, there may not be a seat for Kenseth next year. On Saturday night, his use of past tense in discussing his situation, made it sound as if Kenseth knows his days as a full-time driver will end after these final 12 races.
“I wish it kind of maybe would have went down a different way or maybe I had another year or two there,” he said. “That’s not the way it worked out. I think everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason. It will all become clear.”
Kenseth is far from alone in this predicament.
Stewart-Haas Racing did not pick up the 2018 option for Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, and his future with the team will depend on sponsorship. Same goes for Danica Patrick at SHR.
Kasey Kahne is looking for a landing spot after Hendrick Motorsports said he’ll be replaced by 19-year-old William Byron, and the ride Jones currently drives for Furniture Row Racing? Well, that could vanish unless one of those free agents can piece together a sponsorship package that makes it economically viable to keep the car running.
Even then, a veteran driver must ask himself if its financially worth it to keep racing at a drastically reduced salary.
When Juan Pablo Montoya was let go from Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of the 2013 season, the only offers he received in NASCAR were losing propositions. By the time he subtracted his expenses from the proposed salary, those 38 weekends on the road were going to put him at a financial loss for the season.
Four years later, the economic correction in NASCAR is now hitting everyone. The wads of money that used to be flying around the garage are gone, and everyone is evaluating their options.
For a driver such as Jones, well, that means racing for wins even if it means bumping the guy you are replacing.
“I think when you’re out there, you just see, it’s just another car to pass,” Jones said. “At least I’d assume that’s how most people look at it. That’s how I look at it. You race everybody, your teammates, you race them like teammates for the first 300, 400 laps. When it comes down to the last 100, 150, it’s time to go. You’re just racing everybody for the next spot.”
On and off the track.