Last Lap for the Old Guys

Photo Courtesy: Gene Heagney

Christopher Weil/Correspondent

The sun is setting on the 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series season as Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. wave goodbye to the life they used to know. Both drivers began their full time career in NASCAR’s premier Cup series in the year 2000, and just as they entered together, they will exit together marking 2017 as their final year of full time racing.

Matt Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR Champion, has enjoyed a sure-fire Hall of Fame worthy career. Starting in 2000 for Roush Fenway Racing (RFR,) he was immediately competitive in his bright yellow 17 Ford and notched his first win at the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race on the NASCAR calendar, and is still the only driver to ever win that race as a rookie. While he didn’t win any more races in 2000, he did win Rookie of the Year honors over Earnhardt Junior, simply by being more consistent. Kenseth continued racing with Roush Fenway up until 2013 where he switched over to Joe Gibbs and in the number 20 Toyota, Kenseth revitalized his career earning 7 wins in the 2013 season, the most wins he has ever had in a single season. His final and 39th win of his career came just last week at Phoenix International Raceway, where after winning, he sprayed team owner and former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs with champagne while quipping, “What are you gonna do? Fire me?”

Dale Earnhardt Junior, the 14 time Most Popular Driver, has similarly had a Hall of Fame worthy career. Driving the number 8 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI,) Dale Jr. drove his way to his first win as a rookie at Texas Motor Speedway, and was able to gather 25 more wins through the years for a career total of 26 Cup series wins. Easily one of his biggest wins includes the 2001 Pepsi 400; the first race at Daytona after his father, Dale Earnhardt Senior, crashed and died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In victory lane, Dale Jr said, “He was with me tonight, I don’t know how I did it.” From then on, Dale Earnhardt Junior was always a favorite to win at Daytona, even earning the nickname ‘The Pied Piper,’ as he was the driver everyone else would follow. His fans sure followed him when he moved to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 to pilot the 88 car, which is where he will finish his full time racing career. There is good news, as Dale Jr isn’t done with the racing scene yet. On top of his new gig as a commentator for NBC’s NASCAR coverage, he is set to compete in two Xfinity Series races in 2018. Previously in the Xfinity Series, Dale Jr has enjoyed 24 wins and back-to-back championships that came in 1998 and 1999 with Kenseth playing the bridesmaid in 1998 and being 3rd in ‘99.

Taking over Dale Jr’s 88 next season will be Alex Bowman. Avid fans will remember some of Bowman’s triumphs from 2016 while Junior was recovering from his concussion. The most notable achievements from Bowman included qualifying 1st at Phoenix International Raceway and nearly winning the race before being taken out with 2 laps to go by none other than Matt Kenseth. Filling the hole left by Kenseth in the 20 car will be 2017 Cup Series rookie, Erik Jones. Jones worked his way through the NASCAR ladder winning the Truck Series championship as a rookie in 2015, then finishing 4th in points with 4 wins in the Xfinity series in 2016. While it’s certainly sad to see two fan favorites leave the sport, the new talent entering the sport is more than enough to keep fans watching and cheering.