NASCAR great Matt Kenseth to race Saturday at Nashville Fairgrounds

AP file photo by Terry Renna / Matt Kenseth, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2023, will make his Superstar Racing Experience debut Saturday night at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. The 2003 Cup Series champion will also compete in the final two races of the second season for SRX, an all-star series co-founded by NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Tony Stewart.

Matt Kenseth wasn't sure he was ready to retire from NASCAR competition the first time in 2017, when his seat was given to a younger driver.

Kenseth was still winning races when he stepped away as a two-time Daytona 500 winner and the 2003 Cup Series champion. In fact, he won the penultimate race of his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Any other available job would have been a downgrade, though, so he left NASCAR at age 45, unconvinced it was time - and got lured back the next year to run 15 races for what's now RFK Racing, the team that gave the short-track driver from Wisconsin a shot at the top level of stock car racing two decades earlier. The reunion proved a difficult rebuilding effort, however, and Kenseth retired again at the end of the 2018 season.

Still, he didn't like the idea of closing his NASCAR career that way. So he came back again. This time he returned with Chip Ganassi Racing, which had fired Kyle Larson four races into the coronavirus pandemic-interrupted 2020 schedule and hired the veteran hand to steady the team. And then Kenseth was finally done.

Sort of.

Kenseth has taken up running, doing 10 miles a day and an occasional marathon. Just the big ones, though. He has completed the famed 26.2-mile races in Berlin, Boston, Chicago and New York, and he's currently training for London.

As for racing? Well, Kenseth will make his debut in the Superstar Racing Experience on Saturday night at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and will compete in the two races remaining after that in the all-star series. He'll step outside the SRX circuit on Tuesday night to race in the Slinger Nationals on a quarter-mile track in his home state.

First, though, there is the matter of Nashville.

"I certainly am going there to win, and I certainly hope to win. I cannot stand not being competitive," Kenseth said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But I have no idea what to expect."

Expect him to be well prepared. After two-plus decades of the Cup Series grind, he turned 50 in March. Two months later, he was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame on his first ballot. He ran the Boston Marathon in April without any publicity, but his time of 3 hours, 1 minute, 40 seconds certainly drew attention as he finished 141st in the men's 50-54 division, which had more than 1,300 entrants.

But in typical Kenseth manner, he'll also be unassuming and overshadowed in his SRX debut. While Kenseth finally gets in on all the SRX fun, hometown driver Newgarden, the two-time IndyCar Series champion who lives in the Nashville area, is also giving it a whirl.

Team Penske drivers, a group that includes Newgarden, aren't often given permission by team owner Roger Penske for extracurricular racing, but NASCAR driver Ryan Blaney also received the OK to compete against his father in the July 23 series finale at their hometown track, Ohio's Sharon Speedway.

"You know, I just asked very politely. I said, 'Roger, this would mean a lot to me to go do something different,' and he was supportive of that," Newgarden said. "Maybe it's the first of a couple things up the road."

It might depend on how Saturday night goes in the fourth SRX race of the season. NASCAR Hall of Famer and SRX co-creator Tony Stewart snatched Ernie Francis Jr. by the back of the collar two weeks ago in a heated exchange between stages. Stewart then won the race.

Kenseth spent 22 years banging fenders in the Cup Series. He also raced a bunch in his early career at the Nashville Fairgrounds, which is considered one of the most prestigious short tracks in the country. Speedway Motorsports wants to run a Cup Series race on the 0.596-mile oval.

Last year, the track was site of the SRX finale in the debut season. Chase Elliott - the reigning Cup Series champion at the time - beat his father, NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bill, to win the race as Stewart closed out a series championship.

Kenseth's entire family - which includes two grandchildren from former driver Ross Kenseth, the only son out of Kenseth's five children - will be at the track Saturday night for the first time.

He may legitimately not have cared about the record book while winning 39 Cup Series races and consistently racing for season championships, but when he learned he'd be inducted into the Hall of Fame early next year, Kenseth couldn't help but sentimentalize a bit.

"Now is the time to where you kind of look back at what you accomplished in your professional career, look back and reflect on some of the times and the moments and the people and the relationships," he said. "It's a little different than when you are in the middle of it; probably took it a little for granted."