TALLADEGA — As Matt Kenseth jokes about possibilities for his driving future, the one he raised Friday would at least work well with his yellow-and-black racing suit.
“You know, I was thinking about, maybe, driving a school bus,” the 45-year-old racing veteran said. “I thought that would be fun.
“I drive the kids to school every morning, and it would be fun, driving them home, too.”
Humor is the best answer Kenseth gives as he heads into Sunday’s Alabama 500, the second three races of the second round of NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup and what could be his final Talladega race. Eight racers will advance to the next round. He’s ninth in points.
Until he’s not racing for his first championship since 2003, he is. That’s his focus.
He gets regular questions about his future, but his flashing caution lights come on and the stop signs fan out. He’s just not going to talk about it, beyond a quip or two.
His five-year run with Joe Gibbs Racing comes to an end after this season. JGR has announced 21-year-old Monster Energy Cup rookie Erik Jones as Kenseth’s replacement for 2018.
Openings exist at Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, but salary and sponsorship needs could bump a middle-aged driver known more as Mr. Efficiency than Mr. Excitement out of the draft.
Kenseth could be making a stealth farewell tour to shadow the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announced farewell tour, complete with a visor camera for Sunday’s race. It’s hard to say, because it’s hard to get Kenseth to say.
Asked if he’s had productive talks with anyone in the past few weeks, he dangled his answer like an unwaved green flag in a race official’s hand.
“I had some real productive talks with Katie, the other day,” he said, referring to his wife. “We had a real long, productive talk together. It was enjoyable.”
As chuckles here and there pierced his pause, he reassured the room.
“It’s true,” he said. “We did. We talked about it a lot.”
The fun continued when he was asked his mood about the possibility of racing his last at Talladega.
“Except for the very first time you come here, every time you come here you’re thinking it could possibly be your last race here,” he said, to laughs in the room.
Talladega is known for three- and four-wide pack racing, leading to chain-reaction crashes.
“It don’t really feel any different today than any other time, except the first time I came here,” Kenseth said.
On a wild-track like Talladega, Kenseth could come out with a victory and clinch life in the Chase’s next round. Or, he could crash early and doom his chances.
He’s one point back of eighth-place driver Jamie McMurray and eight behind Jimmie Johnson, who hopes to win his record eighth championship.
Wouldn’t be ironic if Kenseth won a championship under a system that started in 2004, under the unofficial name as “The Matt Kenseth Rule?”
He won the 2003 championship despite winning one race that season. His 25 top-10 finishes made the difference.
The first iteration of the Chase format came into being the next year, rewarding race wins as much as consistency. NASCAR had been working on a new format since 2000, but coincidence won Kenseth credit for forcing the change.
Kenseth could bridge championship eras of NASCAR yet exit the season without a ride for next year. He’s offering no hints as to what might interest him to sign with another team.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I saw a few weeks ago I wasn’t going to talk about next year any more, as long as we’re alive in the playoffs.
“We’re certainly not one of the favorites right now. We haven’t done the things we want to do, but we’re certainly still alive. Anything can happen this weekend, and Kansas (next week) is a great track for us. I’m honestly just focused on the next six weeks, or whatever it is, at the moment.”
Then again, he said, “The school-bus thing is appealing.”