By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
With so much emphasis on the Championship 4, three drivers may have strapped into their cars for the last time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The three of subject were AJ Allmendinger, Matt Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray, whose careers are up in the air after completing their last races in their current rides in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.
Their results might’ve been what defined each of their seasons, with McMurray in 18th and Allmendinger in 19th, while sixth-place Kenseth was the highest finisher. Regardless of their result, each may have left the sport with their own impacting marks that’s wowed fans over the years.
15 years ago, Kenseth placed a flag bearing his name among the champions of the Winston Cup Era (1971-2003) at Homestead, symbolizing the end of an era. Now, he wrapped up his return to Roush Fenway Racing, the team he won the championship with, at that same venue.
Kenseth was the top competitor out of the three all-race long, but it wasn’t until the final stage where he cracked the top-10 as fuel strategy propelled him to second, and was catching Kyle Busch for the race lead. A spin and cut tire by Daniel Suarez halted Kenseth’s momentum, but during pit stops, his No. 6 team kept him in the top-five in fifth.
In the final 15 laps, Kenseth tried holding off Brad Keselowski, but was passed at the end, and like his Cup debut at Dover in 1998, he ended up sixth. More importantly, he accomplished his goal, improving the program for the better.
It’s Kenseth’s second straight top-10 result after finishing seventh at ISM Raceway in Phoenix last Sunday. He led five laps this season, all at Indianapolis where he snookered everyone and scored a stage two victory.
This season was supposed to be his permanent vacation from racing in 2018, turned to an additional 15 races for the Cambridge, Wisconsin native after underwhelming performances and sponsorship woes led to Trevor Bayne being sidelined in favor of the two-time Daytona 500 champion in April.
The team announced in September that Ryan Newman will join the No. 6 team next season, all but confirming that his illustrious racing career being over. Despite little opportunities available, Kenseth has publicly acknowledged that he’s okay with his fate and confident that Newman will deliver at Roush.
The 46-year-old’s dry sense of humor and the embodiment of consistency is what will define his Hall of Fame bound career, scoring 39 wins, 20 poles, and 12 playoff appearances.
The 2003 Rookie of the Year and 2010 Daytona 500 champion’s NASCAR journey as a full-time racer concludes by being the last car on the lead lap in 18th as the No. 1 Chevrolet Camaro that he’s driven since 2010 will go to someone else.
McMurray’s season has been enduring, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014, and struggled to crack the top-20 in points all season, which after Homestead, he closes the season 20th. His highlights were his two top-five efforts at Texas, where he ended up in third, and a runner-up steal at the Charlotte Roval.
The Joplin, Missouri native has mentioned this weekend that he’s yet to respond on the offer of running next year’s Daytona 500 before taking a management role for Chip Ganassi Racing, but is ready for the change after starting his career with a bang in October 2002.
From being an unknown at Brewco Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, McMurray filled in for the injured Sterling Marlin, who led the points for much of the season, and just only his second start, he brought Ganassi a race win. Since then, he’s scored an additional six victories, all taking place at four historic racetracks (Charlotte, Daytona, Indianapolis, and Talladega), and an All-Star Race win in 2014.
McMurray is also a Rolex 24 winner, when the second entry co-driven by IndyCar champions Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, and his teammate of five seasons, Kyle Larson, won the event in 2015. The win joined McMurray in an exclusive elite of three other guys that won both the Rolex 24 and Daytona 500. An accomplishment that’s only been done by Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, and Jeff Gordon.
McMurray has had offers, none of which intrigued him and simply hopes he can still be involved with Ganassi, who he’s driven for twice in his 17-year Cup career.
The versatile racer’s final race at JTG Daugherty Racing before being replaced by Ryan Preece resulted in a 19th-place finish, the first car one lap down.
Not having a ride planned anywhere, his tweets on Saturday, where he thanked his colleagues on Twitter Saturday, may have signaled a potential swan song as a full-time racer after 12 seasons in NASCAR.
A slight improvement from last season in both average finish and points position, Allmendinger scored five top-10s, highlighted with a third at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona in July, and an incredible last chance qualifying victory at Charlotte that got him into the Monster Energy All-Star Race in May. He’s also improved five spots from 2017 to finish 22nd in points.
Out of the three, Allmedinger’s career has been compelling in more ways than one, dating back to his Champ Car days in 2004. After having phenomenal results at RuSPORT, scoring eight podiums, and Mario Dominguez unable to deliver results, he got the opportunity of a lifetime in the fifth round of 2006 with Forsythe Racing where he shined.
Allmendinger won his first three races with his new team, and all of a sudden became a threat to stop Sebastien Bourdais’ title dominance. Despite showcasing what he can do with a top-tier team, Allmendinger jumped ship from open wheel racing to stock car racing, forgoing the finale at Mexico City, and ended up third in the final points tally.
From the beginning, his NASCAR career was grueling as 2007 was a season to forget, missing 19 races in the newly formed Red Bull Racing. In a sport to be cut-throat, it seemed that Allmendinger’s career may be over then, but running seven races in the Xfinity Series for Chip Ganassi that season and later driving for Richard Petty full-time in 2009 gave new light for the Californian.
Allmendinger would finish 15th in points in 2011, where he had a career-high 10 top-10s, which gave him an opportunity to drive for Roger Penske the following season. While his Cup tenure with “The Captain” was short, he was able to finish second at Martinsville that season, and scored two big wins in the Xfinity Series at Road America and Mid-Ohio months later.
By 2014, Allmendinger finally scored an elusive win after driving an sensational race at Watkins Glen, giving he and JTG Daugherty their only wins. More importantly, he locked himself into his first and only playoff berth, where he ended up 13th in the final standings.
While he’s competed in NASCAR for most of his career, it hasn’t stopped Allmendinger from racing in different types of cars. Driving for Penske in 2013, Allmendinger finished seventh in his only Indianapolis 500 start. Due to the death of his close friend Justin Wilson at Pocono in 2015, whom both won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2012 for Michael Shank Racing, it turned out to be his final major open wheel race of his career.
Without any regrets, Allmendinger will remain hopeful about his future, and hopes Sunday isn’t the last time fans will hear from him.
A season has now concluded. For most, all eyes are set on the 61st Daytona 500 Feb. 17, 2019, notably the three teams with new full-time faces. For the predecessors, time will tell if there will be another crack at “The Great American Race” or the finale was it for the trio.