By the time Matt Kenseth informed Roush last week he was leaving Roush Fenway Racing after 14 seasons together, his new deal was already in place.
“Matt asked for an audience with me and told me he wouldn’t be joining the team in 2013 and that he wanted to, obviously, race for a championship this year,” Roush said. “He appreciated all that we’ve done for him for 15 years and done with him for 15 years, but it was over.
“I was surprised. It was a surprise and was a disappointment. There’s just not a lot I can say. Certainly, Matt’s a friend, and I’m not mad at Matt. I’m not mad at my own organization for the fact that they interacted with Matt, and we didn’t get to a satisfactory result. This sport has taken on many of the vestiges of big-time stick-and-ball sports, and so, historically, typically, teams move around their priorities, and athletes move around. So I guess this is the unavoidable consequence of the big-business aspect of what we do.”
Kenseth and Roush have agreed not to discuss the negotiations in public, although multiple sources have confirmed that Kenseth’s new deal was decided two weeks ago at Michigan Speedway. Kenseth has not announced where he’ll be driving next year but said on Friday, “Hopefully, it will be sooner than later. That ball is not in my court unfortunately. We are trying to get that done as soon as possible just so it is out there and we can go on.”
Reports have Kenseth joining Joe Gibbs Racing, but nothing has been confirmed.
When Roush was asked whether Kenseth’s departure could have been prevented he candidly replied, “If I had been as vigilant and diligent and interested in that side of the business as I am on finding why a fuel pump broke or why a connecting rod bearing failed or how we could get the next pound of downforce — if I had been taking care of the business side of the business as hard as I tried to take care of the technical side I might have been able to stop that,” Roush said.
Roush has always been more comfortable in the garage. Before fuel injection, he would often inspect sparkplugs after his drivers’ practice runs. He takes a keen interest in the engines which bear his name. And over the years, he’s relied on his front office to handle the business dealings — from sponsorship to driver contracts — while his passion was in competition and developing speed.
Roush told a story on Friday afternoon regarding Kenseth’s last round of negotiations. It spoke volumes to the separation of competition and the corporate side of Roush Fenway Racing.
“Matt made his agreement three years ago with us," Roush said. "He came to me and said, ‘Jack, relax.’ I said, ‘Why should I relax? I have all these problems.’ He said, ‘I have signed my contract.’ I said I didn’t even know we were in negotiation for the contract and asked, ‘Was it due?’ and he said, ‘Yes, we are good for three more years.’
“I told him that if these guys don’t do for you what you need to let me know and maybe you and I walk out the door together. I hope nobody calls my bluff on that.”
But this time, Roush never got the chance.
“Getting to this point in the season it was definitely somewhat stressful not knowing 100-percent what I was going to do,” Kenseth said. “It all ended up coming together pretty quickly. I really felt and feel like it was absolutely the right thing to do and the right place for me next year and for my future as well.
“It is kind of hard to explain but a lot of things happened or didn’t happen that led to that.”
Maybe the company was naïve to believe that Kenseth was a lifer. Maybe the company wanted to put the entire sponsorship package together before completing the driver’s contract. Maybe the company was unable to match the financial package it offered Carl Edwards the year before. Whatever the reason, there appeared to be a disconnect between Kenseth and RFR’s front office. The problem was not performance. Kenseth leads the point standings. He and teammate Greg Biffle have both won races this season.
“Technology, performance and the team and the people — the engineers and the support group we’ve got around him — have never been referenced in any concern he’s expressed to me,” Roush said.
Still, Roush, who brought Kenseth and crew chief Robbie Reiser (now RFR’s general manager) in when the driver was just 26, said he’s “enjoyed the 15 years with Matt and the success that he has had and the growth that has occurred to the team through his time as a driver. He, like Mark Martin and Greg and Carl, he is a cornerstone of what we do and his DNA is all over the things that we are known for and our success . . . His leaving the team creates a window, a hole . . .”
RFR announced on Tuesday that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will fill that void. Trevor Bayne, who is running a limited Sprint Cup schedule for the Wood Brothers, is expected to move into Roush’s full-time Nationwide Series ride. Roush also said he expects crew chief Jimmy Fennig and the rest of the No. 17 Cup crew to stay intact for Stenhouse in 2013.
“The 17 program is a championship level program and for Ricky to have all the guidance and expertise and support that Jimmy Fennig and the guys can provide is essential,” Roush said.
With the tremendous rapport and respect Kenseth has with Fennig, his crew and his teammates, there’s no reason to believe his run for the Chase to the Championship will be compromised. Plus, Kenseth is still a valuable asset to his fellow drivers with the support and precise feedback he can offer on and off the track.
“Matt and I — and I think everybody on the team — the friendship part will survive,” Roush said. “I have not lost respect for Matt and I hope he hasn’t for me. We’re going to go out and win a championship if we can. Of course, he’s going to have to beat the other two Roush Fenway cars, hopefully, as well as the rest of the field.
"But if things fall so that Matt has the hot hand, we’ll try to win the championship with him and wish him well — but not the very best of luck going forward.
“He will from my point of view be moving to the dark side. We will get through that. Personally we will be fine.”