What’s Next for Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20?

Matthew T. Thacker/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

SPARTA, Ky. – Silly season is officially underway, and the first domino has fallen into place.

Matt Kenseth confirmed in a Friday morning press conference that he doesn’t believe he’ll be back with Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) next season, a breaking story that adds fuel to a host of rumors throughout the NASCAR garage.

So, where does Kenseth end up, and who takes his place at JGR?

Who Gets the No. 20?

What’s next for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota? (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

The easier move to lay out of the two, at least at first glance, appears to be Kenseth’s replacement at JGR.

Erik Jones.

Jones is a JGR prospect, having come up with the company through ladder team Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series and JGR themselves in the XFINITY Series.

JGR allowed Jones to sign a one-year contract to compete in pseudo-teammate Furniture Row Racing’s No. 77 entry in 2017. But the Byron, Michigan native isn’t confirmed for any time beyond that – a fact he confirmed on Thursday  – and he still drives for JGR in occasional XFINITY Series starts.

‘”I’m just driving,” Jones said. “For the most part, for me — I don’t know where I’m going to be yet. They haven’t let me know.

“So for me, I’ve been really happy at Furniture Row, and it’s been a steady group of guys over there that I think work really well together. I don’t yet. Hopefully I know soon. It’s kind of getting down to that point. I guess it’s July now, so I’m sure we’ll have an answer here soon.”

No real options have been listed outside of Jones thus far. JGR has already called up Daniel Suarez to replace the retiring Carl Edwards for 2017, and none of their current prospects in NASCAR’s lower levels appear ready for a jump. Martin Truex, Jr. signed a two-year contract extension with FRR last August that should keep him in with the Colorado-based organization through 2018.

The only other option would be to sell or lease their fourth charter and run with three teams, but no one at JGR has expressed interest in doing that to date.

What’s Next for Matt Kenseth?  

This is the side of this story without a clear answer.

Kenseth has a few factors working against him. At 45 years old, the Cambridge, Wisconsin native like doesn’t have many years left in the Cup Series – a major knock as teams try to take advantage of the sport’s recent youth movement.

There’s a good chance we’ll see Matt Kenseth behind the wheel in 2017. As for where? It’s difficult to say. (Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

There’s nothing to guarantee that any of Kenseth’s sponsors would go with him, and this season has seen him take a dip in performance, albeit one that may be attributable to JGR’s overall struggles. Kenseth currently sits 11th in points, just three markers ahead of Joey Logano for the final spot in the current playoff grid.

Kenseth himself admitted to failing to meet expectation this year, saying: “It has not been a good year at all — not nearly up to my standards or my team standards.”

Still, Kenseth is a previous champion, and came within one late caution at Phoenix Raceway from a trip to the Championship 4 just last season.

So, where does he go?

At 45 years old, the first thought that comes to mind is retirement, but Kenseth doesn’t appear to be considering that option.

“As of today, I do not have a job for next year, so I certainly hope to still be racing,” Kenseth said Friday. “I think I’ve got some wins left in me and hopefully can race for championships.”

If he wants to contend for wins and championships, then Kenseth needs to find a team capable of winning immediately. That leaves a couple options on the table.

Option 1: Furniture Row Racing

Could Kenseth and Jones just swap teams?

Potentially.

Kenseth’s quotes on Thursday were specific in that they rules out only JGR, not FRR.

“I do not think I will have the option to race for JGR next year, unfortunately,” Kenseth said.

That leaves the door open for a potential move to FRR should Jones leave the organization, where Kenseth could pair with Truex to give the group a veteran duo that are both capable of delivering wins and championships.

Whether Kenseth’s the one to make a move or not, FRR should be expected to add someone. The team has a charter for their No. 77 entry – purchased from Premium Motorsports over the offseason – which means they’d need to either lease or sell their charter should they choose to go back to one team.

Back when Jones was first announced for the No. 77 ride in Aug. 2016, team owner Barney Visser told SiriusXM’s Claire B. Lang that he expected to have someone in the car if Jones were to leave.

“If we don’t have him, we will have somebody else,” Visser said. “With how we’re running, we will get a very, very good driver after he leaves, if he leaves, and I’m fairly certain he will. We will attract one of the best drivers in the garage for that second slot, I am confident. The cars are just going to be running too well. The first car is running to well. It all builds on itself. It all kind of snowballs in the right direction.”

At one point, a ride with FRR seemed feasible in 2018 for William Byron, but the former KBM driver moved to Chevrolet and JR Motorsports for 2017. That doesn’t leave many options for FRR, which could play to Kenseth’s favor.

Option 2: Hendrick Motorsports

It seemed farfetched at the time, but the rumor that Kenseth could make a move over to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet as a short-term replacement for the retiring Dale Earnhardt, Jr. seems to be a possibility.

The concept was first floated out to the public on Twitter by Associated Press writer Jenna Fryer, and it has since grown legs as the circumstances surrounding Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) come to light.

HMS prospect Alex Bowman once appeared to be the leading candidate for the ride, but he may prove a difficult addition should Earnhardt’s sponsors not want to take the risk on a relatively unknown name.

Byron appears to be a candidate for the ride, but the 19-year-old is in the midst of his first NXS season. Only once in the past 20 years has Rick Hendrick elected to lift a driver up to the Cup Series after a single full season in XFINITY – for Kyle Busch in 2005. However, even Busch had a limited debut season in addition to his full year before he made the leap.

If that’s the case, and Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 Chevrolet isn’t in play, then HMS may need someone to fill in for one season while Byron continues to garner experience.

At 45 years old, the veteran Kenseth may be a perfect fit for such a move. The Wisconsinite’s reputation could help ease any sponsorship woes, and his ability to win immediately might prove enticing for a team of HMS’ caliber.

Kenseth would neither confirm nor deny a potential move to the No. 88, saying: “You know, I’ve probably already said too much about what I am not doing next year,.”

Option 3: Everything Else

Beyond those two options, it’s difficult to see where Kenseth might go.

Another opportunity could arise at a different team, but it wouldn’t likely be the caliber of ride Kenseth is after. Danica Patrick’s No. 10 Chevrolet could come into play if her rumored exit comes to fruition, but outside of that the rest of the tour’s top teams appear set.

Kenseth could potentially dip down to one of the lower tours, a move seen from Elliott Sadler, Casey Mears and Justin Allgaier in recent years, but he’s yet to express interest in that.

In truth, the likely alternative for Kenseth is that he could fade into obscurity, much like former Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle after last season.

Silly season is officially underway, and the first domino has fallen. What comes next remains to be seen.

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