KANSAS CITY, Kan. – It was about a year ago that Matt Kenseth thought he would be spending the year driving a school bus.
He is back to driving something with a little more horsepower.
Kenseth returned to NASCAR’s top series on Friday when he climbed into the No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, practicing and qualifying for Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway. The former series champion agreed to a deal last month to split time in the car with Trevor Bayne the rest of the year.
“The last few weeks have been fun, just trying to get a little bit caught up and re-acclimated with the system and people and what’s changed,” Kenseth said Friday morning. “I’ve been anxious about today and getting through tech and on the track in time. I’m pretty anxious to see where we’re at.”
Kenseth was anxious for a much different reason the last time he was at Kansas.
It was toward the end of last season and Kenseth had lost his ride with Joe Gibbs Racing, which had decided to move forward with Erik Jones as part of a youth movement. The 46-year-old Kenseth knew he had the talent to keep driving at the Cup level, but there were no competitive rides available. At least, none that could afford his salary.
So, the self-assured Kenseth mused about the possibility of driving a school bus, since he already took his own kids to school most days. And while steering a big yellow bus never happened, Kenseth said he did enjoy the time away from NASCAR’s week-to-week grind, and that he wouldn’t have returned to such a pressure-cooker if it wasn’t the right opportunity. Team owner Jack Roush ended up giving him a call.
Kenseth began his Cup career with Roush in 1998, winning a series title and two Daytona 500s. But his move to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013 created a bit of a rift, and in the intervening years, a program that was once considered one of the gold standards of NASCAR began to slide.
Roush’s five-car stable had dwindled to two, and while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races and made the playoffs last year, Bayne has struggled to live up to expectations after his own Daytona 500 win.
So, Roush picked up the phone and made the offer: Kenseth would share time with Bayne the rest of the season, providing his opinions and expertise for a program searching for some results.
“We see a potential for Matt being involved with the company and race team past his driving,” Roush said last month, when the deal was announced. “It’s a chance to look at our cars and find out if there’s something glaring that Matt will see from his experience.”
Kenseth confirmed Friday that he will drive the next five weeks, which means the All-Star race, Charlotte, Pocono and Michigan. He is also expected behind the wheel for the remaining races with Wyndham Rewards as the sponsor for Indianapolis, Dover, Phoenix and the season-ending race at Homestead.
More will be added to the schedule, though Bayne – who was admittedly miffed by the ride-share – is expected to drive the eight races remaining with AdvoCare as the primary sponsor. Bayne did make the trip to Kansas, showing some maturity in supporting Kenseth’s return.
“Short-term, I hope to help the organization. That’s why Jack and I decided to do this,” Kenseth said. “They wanted to get their performance up and I hope I can do that.”
Kenseth is a two-time winner at Kansas, though he struggled to find speed early on, turning a fast lap of 179.706 mph in what became one long practice session because of weather and track issues.
That put him 28th among the 38 drivers who took part in practice. “You know, professionally I don’t know that I really have a long-term goal. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, either,” he said. “I’m not thinking very far out at the moment, to be honest with you. I’m just trying to concentrate on this, do well this weekend, evaluate and do better next week.”