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Bonds remain strong for Kenseth, Earnhardt in career twilight

RELATED: Kenseth through the years | Full schedule for Phoenix

Nearly two decades ago, a pair of fresh-faced drivers stared back at the many subscribers of “ESPN the Magazine” as they pulled the Spring 2000 issue out of their respective mailboxes.

“Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are on your tail,” the tagline read.

Now, they’re on their way out.

After more than 600 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races together, Earnhardt and Kenseth find themselves with but a pair of foreseeable races remaining in their Cup-level racing careers in Sunday’s Round of 8 cutoff at Phoenix Raceway (2:30 p.m ET, NBC) and next weekend’s Championship 4 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 19, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

Neither of the accomplished drivers are among those racing for a title. Right now, it’s about race trophies – and memories, which the duo have shared throughout their careers despite never racing for the same team.

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It kind of all started with that “First kid you meet in kindergarten becomes your best friend for life” principle, way back in the mid-1990s.

“(Our friendship has) really kind of stayed the same,” Earnhardt said Friday afternoon at Phoenix, of his perennial motor coach-lot neighbor and cycling pal. “Matt engaged me early in our careers in the XFINITY Series and I was really shy; didn’t have an understanding of how to interact with my peers and competitors that well. I was just trying to do well.

“I was really nervous coming up into the ranks, but Matt engaged me and we became friends through conversations with him really quickly. We were both sort of coming into the XFINITY Series at the same time and then we went into the Cup Series together. We did a lot of things together. We supported each other and enjoyed seeing each other have success.”

Their mutual success blossomed in the new millennium after starting as rookies in 2000 – as foretold by that ESPN cover – with 64 Monster Energy Series wins combined.

Earnhardt edged Kenseth for a pair of XFINITY Series titles in 1998 and 1999 (with the latter earning a runner-up finish in ’98 and a third-place result in ’99), but it was Kenseth who earned the only premier-series title between the two – and with equipment that may not have been top-of-the-line, no less.

“Matt won his championship in 2003. I bet he was probably down 40 horsepower to everybody else. Roush (Fenway Racing) probably wouldn’t admit it, wouldn’t like to hear that, but he was just an amazing driver,” said Earnhardt, who finished third in the standings that year – the closest he’d come to a title.

“We beat him in the championship in the XFINITY Series. We had a whole lot more race car than he did, and he ran us pretty hard. I felt like he did a lot in those two years with very little. … I had always been impressed with his talent and his ability. He was as good a driver as anybody that is in the series today.”

While that may be true – and Kenseth’s 14 wins over the past four years alone indicate it is – Joe Gibbs Racing has plans to move on from its current, 45-year-old driver of the No. 20 Toyota to usher in its future with 21-year-old Erik Jones, currently driving for Furniture Row Racing.

RELATED: Kenseth to step away

After announcing last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway that he’d be stepping away from driving in 2018 – without going so far as actually calling it a “retirement” – it’s evident that we could be seeing the last of a pair of superstars racing at the sport’s highest level.

And, given all the fanfare, gifts and recognition thrown at Earnhardt and the hushed, humbling nature of Kenseth’s announcement, they’re going out just the way they came in.

“One funny thing that we talk about; we were getting our picture made for the cover of ESPN magazine back when we were coming into the Cup series and everybody knew that Matt had so much potential, so they had me up front and then they kind of had him behind me,” Earnhardt said. “The image was to express that there is all this hoopla about me coming in and there is all this attention on me, but you better watch this guy Matt, that was sort of what the image was trying to express. This guy is one you need to keep your eye on and he is lurking over my shoulder.

“But, Matt was really frustrated because the photographer kept sliding Matt a little further and a little further behind me. He kept getting more and more angry and he is whispering in my ear how pissed off he was at this photographer because he was like ‘they can’t even freaking see me.’ And I’m like ‘Matt the story, really … the image is to sort of show you as the real threat,’ you know, and people are talking about me and they should be talking about you. But, we still talk about that today.”

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It’s hard not to look at their relationship and see a brotherly bond, Kenseth being the older, wiser sibling and Junior, well, being the junior sibling that tends to get all the attention. It’s a friendship that has benefitted each tremendously, and one that will soldier on – even as one continues to soak up the spotlight in an NBC Sports commentator role and the other sinks heavily and happily into a deep family life, even if he’d still like to be racing.

Both have children on the way – Earnhardt’s first and Kenseth’s fifth – and plenty of photos will likely be exchanged, even if Kenseth was slightly miffed and gave Junior a hard time for finding out about wife Amy’s pregnancy via social media and not through a text.

That kind of humor is what Junior loves about his friend, and the overall ‘Matt Kenseth package’ is something he draws from.

“Matt, I love his sense of humor. I love the person he is and the person he has become, the father he is. And so, you know, he has always had an influence on me as far as how I race or the person I want to be or become,” Earnhardt said.

“All us drivers have terrible egos and we can hardly stand each other and being around each other sometimes, but I’ve never felt that way about Matt. Matt has never done anything where I have felt like he was inflating his ego. He has always just been Matt and was such a pleasure to race with and to know and be friends with. So, I hope that … and I know we will … he is more than likely going to be hard to find once he is out of the race car, but I hope we can spend time together and we will definitely remain friends.”

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