At 10:30 Tuesday morning, Jack Roush assembled his troops to announce Matt Kenseth would no longer be driving the No. 17 Ford after the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The news shocked and saddened many at the Roush Fenway Racing campus. After all, Kenseth was a fixture at Roush for the last 14 years – long before there was a Fenway. He was the first driver to bring home the Sprint Cup championship. He was the first Roush driver to win not one but two Daytona 500s. And not surprisingly, at 40, Kenseth is leading the Sprint Cup points once again.
But when news of Kenseth’s departure was delivered to the employees that supported him throughout his entire Cup career, one person was missing: Kenseth.
“No, I wanted to be a part of that and I didn’t know they were telling the shop – when they told them – in time for me to get there,” Kenseth said. “So I will try to be there for the team meeting next week and be able to talk to the guys.
“But l got there as soon as I could after their announcement to talk to my guys a little bit. Obviously, I’ll be spending the weekend with them and hopefully I can talk to the whole shop next week. I don’t understand all the inner workings of everything. I know they had a timeline and a plan for doing things, but yeah, that was very important for me to be standing there next to Jack and (general manager) Robbie (Reiser) and probably (team president) Steve (Newmark) to tell them guys what was going on, what was the future.
“At the end of the day, it didn’t happen. I’ll make sure to get there next week and talk to the guys.”
Word trickled out shortly after the meeting that Kenseth indeed was leaving and likely headed to Joe Gibbs Racing.
Then the speculation began. Did Kenseth seek out a new home? Was he courted by multiple suitors? Did a lack of sponsorship at Roush Fenway Racing make his future with the organization appear bleak? Just last month, Roush said publicly he would do whatever it took to keep Kenseth in the fold. Kenseth always believed he was a Roush lifer.
Prior to Kenseth’s one-on-one interviews on Wednesday afternoon, he said on Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio that a lot of people “probably wouldn’t understand” his decision to leave Roush Fenway Racing. Despite his age, Kenseth is at the top of his game. And RFR’s equipment is solid. For 15 of 16 races this season either Kenseth or his teammate Greg Biffle has led the points standings.
So, why leave now?
“There are a lot of factors that go into that, I think especially in this sport,” Kenseth said. “It’s relatively small and the way that timing works out with driver contracts, sponsor contracts, what have you, the timing doesn’t always work out for people.
“This is one of those weird incidences where it got to be May and I didn’t have a deal set yet for next year. I had a deal that popped up that really, that really interested me. I had been at Roush Fenway for a real long time and had been in the same system. It’s worked great. I’ve had really competitive cars, but had another winning opportunity come up.
“I thought at this point in my career, the way the timing worked out and everything, if I was ever going to make a move it was probably time to try that. At the same time, they had a chance to move Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) up to Cup and they had been looking to try to find a way to do that probably since last year. That gave them that same opportunity to move up and do that.”
Roush Fenway Racing strategically upstreamed Kenseth’s message with the promotion of Stenhouse, 24. The Nationwide Series champion will compete full time in Sprint Cup next year. Stenhouse has been touted as the future of the company. However, seat time in stock cars at the Cup level requires sponsorship. And after the end of last season, UPS downgraded its status from a primary sponsor to an associate on Roush’s flagship car.
Consequently, the No. 6 Ford was placed in mothballs as the organization downsized to three teams for the first time since 1996.
Kenseth refused to discuss what level “or lack thereof” his negotiations with Roush reached. But is it possible that Kenseth took one for the team to expedite Stenhouse’s learning curve?
“No, not really,” Kenseth said. “I really feel like at the end of the day, probably it doesn’t feel like it to everybody, but I think in the future this is what’s best for everybody. It’s an opportunity for them guys to get Ricky in there and see how that goes. Try something different on a lot of fronts – not the performance front – but on a lot of different ones. It’s an opportunity for me to try something different too and see what it’s like."
While there have been rumors circulating that Kenseth was courted for a ride with Penske Racing or Stewart-Haas Racing before he reached an agreement with his new team, which he has not disclosed, the driver opted not to fuel the speculation.
“I’m not going to talk about any of the offers I did or didn’t have or any of that stuff,” Kenseth said. “But it all came together pretty quick … spent a little time talking to them and it was something I was interested in doing and it kind of went from there. … I don’t want to talk about the offers I did or didn’t have.”
In 2011, Roush elected to run two of his three Nationwide Series programs primarily out of his own pocket in an effort to keep his farm system afloat. Roush’s other two veteran racers – Biffle and Carl Edwards – both came through the Truck and Nationwide series before graduating to Sprint Cup. But the economy has hampered the procurement of sponsorship – including Kenseth’s own No. 17 Ford. Still, RFR’s sponsorship struggles – including cobbling programs together for Kenseth – “was not a determining factor” in his decision to leave.
“The sponsorship situation over the last couple of years hasn’t directly affected our performance,” Kenseth said. “We still had everything we need to run good. I don’t know anything at all about the business side of it. That would be something to ask ownership, but it hasn’t affected me in the last couple of years.”
And Kenseth hopes by releasing the news that he’s leaving at this juncture in the season, it won’t affect his championship run either. Kenseth had a front-row seat for the disruptions that followed Edwards’ negotiations, which lasted until August.
Once the buzz dies down, Kenseth believes the focus will return to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I really try hard to keep my business just that – my business,” Kenseth said. “We did a really good job of that. I don’t really think I was in the rumor mill. I don’t think anyone was talking about it. I don’t think it was a distraction at all. The timing of the announcement was 100 percent up to Roush. That was their deal. I think that was smart doing it (Tuesday), getting it all out there.
“Hopefully, we’ll continue to perform the way we are. Hopefully, we’ll make the Chase and have a shot at the thing. Hopefully, everything will die down in a week or two and we can get this all behind us. Obviously, this weekend will be a lot more going on than we would wish. Hopefully, we’ll get through that and full speed ahead. We’ll try to keep the 17 car up front.”