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Matt Kenseth's winding road back to the NASCAR Cup Series

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Matt Kenseth's winding road back to the NASCAR Cup Series
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Matt Kenseth, 48, is back in the NASCAR Cup Series in a shock move by Chip Ganassi Racing to name him the new driver of the No. 42 machine following Kyle Larson's firing.

Kenseth will return to the driver's seat in a shock move by Chip Ganassi Racing, but how did we get to this point? Here's a look back on Kenseth's unique path back into NASCAR competition.

Loyalty to Roush Fenway

Kenseth started his full-time Cup career in 2000 with Roush Racing (now Roush Fenway Racing) where he found victory lane early on in NASCAR's longest race -- the Coca Cola 600. His time with Roush was fruitful, winning 24 races, two Daytona 500s and the 2003 series title.

Matt Kenseth and the final Winston Cup championship trophy

Matt Kenseth and the final Winston Cup championship trophy

Photo by: Autostock

But at the conclusion of the 2012 season and at the age of 40, he felt it was time for a change in what he called a "difficult" decision. After spending his entire NCS career with RFR and despite winning three races in his final season with the team, he walked away and joined Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2013 season.

A new beginning

Some may say the grass isn't always greener on the other side, but that certainly wasn't the case for Kenseth. He won a career-high seven races in 2013, placing second in the championship standings and solidifying his place within the organization. 

In 2015, Kenseth got himself involved in a now infamous feud with Joey Logano during the title chase. While leading with a few laps to go in the playoff race at Kansas -- a win that would have locked him into the Championship 4 -- Kenseth was spun off the nose of Logano. Two weeks later, he would have his revenge as he sent Logano careening into the wall at Martinsville while the Team Penske driver was leading, knocking him out of the Championship 4 as well. Kenseth was parked for the final two races of the year and the fan base was split over the controversial move. It was the first time he had missed a race in 15 years of full-time competition.

Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Kenseth would go on to win 15 races with JGR in a five-year period for 39 total leading up to the conclusion of the 2017 season where another change was made. This time though, it was not Kenseth's decision.

Gibbs opted to promote developmental driver Erik Jones to the No. 20 machine, pushing the veteran out of the ride. 

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"Matt has been a tremendous asset to our organization over the past five seasons both on and off the track," said team owner Joe Gibbs at the time. "He's been a great teammate and a great ambassador for our sponsors. We have a great deal of respect for him and we are working hard to get the 20 team into the playoffs to make a run for the championship. We have a great deal of confidence in his abilities to do just that."

There was even a bit of a send-off for Kenseth at the season finale where Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also making his final start.

Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

Back home again

Kenseth's competitors hailed him as a still capable driver with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson saying then he is "just too good." But Kenseth didn't just want to take any ride. He didn't want to to just run for a paycheck, but take an opportunity at a team where he could be competitive and an asset to them.

Kenseth did not start the 2018 as that opportunity never came. However, things changed during April of that year. 

Mark Martin took to the podium at a press conference to announce that Kenseth would reunite with Roush Fenway Racing, the team he drove for at the Cup level from 1999 to 2012. He would share driving duties with Trevor Bayne and run 15 races, helping RFR as they looked to improve their organization after several years of subpar performance.

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Matt Kenseth, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford Fusion #DoYouKnowJack

Matt Kenseth, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford Fusion #DoYouKnowJack

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

His goal was to "help Roush Fenway return to prominence in the NASCAR Cup Series" with his insight from behind the wheel. Kenseth concluded the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway where he finished sixth, and that was thought to be the end of his career.

When pressured what his plans were for 2019 and beyond, Kenseth told the media: "I’m certainly not talking about next year and I haven’t really put as much thought into it as you all have, honestly."

A surprise return

Now things have changed once again. Following Kyle Larson's use of a racial slur during an iRacing stream, he was left without a ride at Chip Ganassi Racing and indefinitely suspended from NASCAR.

Ganassi was in need of a new driver, one who could live up to Chip's 'I like winners' moniker and also appease sponsors. Many thought Ross Chastain was the favorite for the seat due to his established relationship with CGR. Others thought Jamie McMurray would come out of retirement and return to the seat as he had a good relationship with CGR's primary backers.

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Jamie McMurray, Spire Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro McDonalds/Cessna/Bass Pro Shops and Ross Chastain, Premium Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro

Jamie McMurray, Spire Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro McDonalds/Cessna/Bass Pro Shops and Ross Chastain, Premium Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

Chip even admitted that Carl Edwards was considered, but Edwards declined the offer. Ultimately, he turned to Kenseth, a proven champion and veteran of 665 Cup races over the last 22 years.

"I have always said that when we have to fill a driver spot, that I owe it to our team, our partners and our fans to put the best available driver in the car," said Ganassi in a release from the team. "We are doing exactly that with Matt. Throughout my time in NASCAR, I have always admired the way Matt Kenseth raced. He has proven to be a consistent winner, strong competitor, and respectful driver, and I’m glad we are able to add another NASCAR champion to the team for the remainder of this season.”

Ganassi outlined what made Kenseth desirable when talking with the Associated Press, putting it simply: "Stability. No baggage. Family man. Daytona 500 winner. Championship winner.”

The team has received a waiver from NASCAR, so Kenseth is eligible for the championship. Having only missed four races, it's feasible that he could make his way into the 2020 playoffs.

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Chastain remains an integral part of Ganassi's future plans and will run a third entry for the team in association with Spire Motorsports in May's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He is also running for the NASCAR Xfinity Series title with Kaulig Racing.

The next Mark Martin?

As for Kenseth, this will be his first Cup drive for a Chevrolet team, but he will also reunite with old Roush teammate Kurt Busch. The duo won the 2003 and 2004 Cup Series titles for RFR and were teammates from 2000 to 2005. 

Two weeks ago, the 48-year-old Wisconsin native would have never thought he'd be back in competitive car like this again. "I can’t say racing was even on my radar two weeks ago," he admitted Monday. "After spending some time thinking about it and all the unique circumstances surrounding all of us right now, it just seemed the timing and the opportunity was perfect to come back. I know I have a lot of work ahead of me to get up to speed in a relatively short period of time, but I'm looking forward to the challenge."

The closest comparison to Kenseth's late career trajectory is Mark Martin, who was granted a farewell tour of sorts during the 2005 season. Martin would return to NASCAR on a part-time basis until 2009 when he joined Hendrick Motorsports full-time. Despite being 50 years old, he won five races and finished second in the championship standings. He finally ended his career after a part-time schedule with Michael Waltrip Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013, at the age of 54 and nearly eight years after that initial 'farewell tour.'

The two drivers have a mutual admiration for each other with Martin once calling Kenseth his 'favorite driver of all time' after his 2018 return to RFR.

Considering all the twists and turn of this year on and off the track, there's no reason to think that Kenseth, 48, won't do exactly what Martin did and reach Victory Lane in the twilight of his career.

Perhaps he will even battle for the championship one final time...

Race winner Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Race winner Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

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About this article

Series NASCAR Cup
Author Nick DeGroot