The Frontstretch: Kenseth Leaving Roush Fenway: Thoughts, Rumors and Possibilities by Kevin Rutherford -- Wednesday June 27, 2012

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Kenseth Leaving Roush Fenway: Thoughts, Rumors and Possibilities

Kevin Rutherford · Wednesday June 27, 2012

 

Sixteen races into a season in the Sprint Cup Series, one might think the driver with the smallest likelihood of leaving their team at year’s end would be the points leader, right?

Right. About that.

On Tuesday, it was announced that longtime Roush Fenway Racing employee and former champion Matt Kenseth will be leaving the organization he broke into the sport with, ending weeks of speculation concerning his future. The move might strike the uninformed passersby as peculiar. Not only is Kenseth the points leader, but he also won the Daytona 500 in February, his second win in four years in the Great American Race. Performance certainly isn’t an issue, not this year and not in previous seasons. So what is?

Money.

The Wisconsin native has struggled to find sponsorship for his No. 17 Ford despite his results. Rather than have a familiar paint scheme and the same crop of sponsors like most fully-funded teams, Kenseth has received backing from a hodgepodge of companies, including Best Buy, Fifth Third Bank and Zest soap. And even doesn’t cover the entire season.

Matt Kenseth has grown into a champion at Roush Fenway Racing, and sponsors have come and gone, but now the driver will walk away from the team he’s made all but six of his Cup starts with at the end of 2012.

Obviously Kenseth can get wins, solid finishes and Chase berths; he’s only missed the Chase once since the format was introduced in 2004. But have we reached a point in the sport where results are no longer enough? Is a certain type of personality required to attract sponsors these days? It’s not like Kenseth is an undesirable. He’s often cool, calm and collected, rarely saying anything controversial and stepping outside boundaries. He goes out on race day and does his job, simple as that.

Of course, there’s been talk that the reason for Kenseth’s sponsorship woes is not his fault, but Jack Roush’s. Remember too that Kenseth isn’t the only Roush Fenway driver struggling to find backing. Trevor Bayne’s Nationwide Series run has been cut short due to lack of funding, and even Kenseth’s replacement in the No. 17, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has driven plenty of Nationwide races unsponsored despite being that series’ defending champion. Other teams, such as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, seem to have no shortage of sponsors. Perhaps Roush’s price is too high.

Whatever the reason, you have to be interested in the wording of Roush’s announcement. “Of course, I’d like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service,” it reads. Underwhelming much? The release goes on to say a bit more about his accomplishments with the team, but even Roush seems a bit apathetic at his departure.

If the theory of Roush’s price being too high holds water, then Kenseth should struggle a bit less with finding full-season backing. We’ll see in a few months if that’s the case. Either way, the 2003 champion needs a ride for 2013.

So where does he go?

The most prevalent of rumors points to Joe Gibbs Racing, and that certainly makes the most sense. It’s no secret that Joey Logano’s job security with the team isn’t concrete. Gibbs claims he’ll stay with the team, but has been ambiguous as to what he’ll be doing — or, more so, racing. Could The Home Depot have finally given up on Logano, opting instead for the stoic demeanor and consistent, proven results that Kenseth can provide, sending Logano to the Nationwide Series to beat up on the competition some more?

I suppose a fourth team with Gibbs is also an option. Again, as always, it’s all about funding. Dollar General has tasted success on the Nationwide level with Logano, and should they decide to make the jump to Sprint Cup, a fourth JGR team with Logano would be a logical choice, leaving the No. 20 ride open for a free agent like Kenseth.

Who else has an opening? Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has a mere two full-time teams and has expressed interest in fielding a third. There’s also been talk of Earnhardt Ganassi driver Jamie McMurray going on the move, though he supposedly signed a multi-year deal. EGR has a better track record than Roush Fenway in terms of securing sponsorship, though its results obviously pale in comparison. Same goes for a team like Michael Waltrip Racing, though they are making a case for themselves as an upper echelon organization. There’s been talk of a fourth Cup team at MWR, but the most likely candidate for that ride appears to be Brian Vickers, who has driven for the team part-time and has two top-5 finishes in three starts this year.

Stewart-Haas Racing might also be a good fit for Kenseth, but he’ll need to find sponsorship to bring to the table. The team has had trouble finding funding for Ryan Newman, which could open a door at the No. 39 for a driver with full funding, but that’s a last resort for the team, and you have to think a similar fate might meet Kenseth should he arrive there.

Really, right now all signs point to Gibbs. The only drawback? The mild-mannered Kenseth may not fit in well personality-wise at JGR, though his would-be teammate Kyle Busch has certainly simmered down a bit in 2012, and Denny Hamlin has become a level-headed voice in the organization. Talent-wise, though, Kenseth is more than on par with Busch and Hamlin.

To close, let’s consider for a moment the possibilities for Kenseth. While leaving the organization where the grew up in the sport’s spotlight will not be easy, there are certainly possibilities for the driver that will keep him in top-flight equipment, and land him in a spot where his veteran presence and ability to be there when it counts at virtually every track on the circuit will be appreciated. Kenseth could hold the key to the futures of several teams and drivers in his hand…it will be up to him to choose which way to turn it.

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Bill B
06/27/2012 07:55 AM
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I would bet Kenseth already knows where he is going to land. They just aren’t ready to announce it yet.
If they don’t make the announcement soon, I am sure more concrete rumors will start to surface.

Carl D.
06/27/2012 09:11 AM
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So why is it so hard to land sponsorship for a top level team or driver? The bottom line is the Bottom Line. It cost more to sponsor a competitive team than it’s worth to potential sponsor. You can partially blame that on the race coverage since only the star drivers and race leaders get much air time, but that that’s only a small part of the overall problem. Until Nascar does something to bring down the cost of running a competitive team, the lack of adequate sponsorship problem is only going to get worse. Brian France seems to have his head in the sand on this issue, though, as is evidenced by the significant number of start-and-park teams. Know why HMS teams wins so many races? Because Rick can afford it.

Michael in SoCal
06/27/2012 11:04 AM
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An interesting thought posted by Mikeyfan1599 I read has Kurt Busch & Kenseth going to Michael Andretti Motorsports in Dodges next season. Not sure how likely this is, but it does seem possible, with both drivers having past champions’ provisionals to fall back on.

john
06/27/2012 11:48 AM
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That does seem like a match made in heaven in terms of skill level, and having the champions provisionals.

On the other hand, the Ford camp seems to keep talking about Kenseth as being one of “theirs.” It’d be pretty shocking to see him defect to Dodge.

It would certainly give me a heck of a team to cheer for—been slim pickings this season for Kurt!

Don
06/27/2012 11:52 AM
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Carl D., you hit the nail right on the head. The lack of economic understanding and financial acumen that the upper management of NASCAR lacks is mind boggling; execept of course when it comes to lining their own pockets.

groy
06/27/2012 12:10 PM
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I’d guess MWR….he’s very close to Martin.

mikeyfan5599
06/27/2012 12:27 PM
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Michael in So Cal – thanks for the plug. It would make sense for Dodge to go all out for Matt and Kurt has a good history with Dodge so I can really see that happening especially if Michael Andretti is serious about coming to cup. Engines to be a potential problem, but that can be worked out. Would love to see Matt in the 55 MWR Toyota Camry as Matt is friends of not only Mark Martin but Clint Bowyer too. All one can really say though is silly season is upon us in full force and it happens before Daytona.

mrclause
06/27/2012 12:58 PM
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Without a full time sponsor Matt was losing out on the very lucrative personal services deals that these elite drivers have. The team paycheck is only a part of their large incomes. Dale Jr was reported to have made 30+ million last year, you can’t think that’s what he got from HMS. Gordon was at 29+ million. Matt was missing out on a lot without a sponsor. So of course he tested the waters and yes, he knows where he is going next year.

Kevin in SoCal
06/27/2012 01:23 PM
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As a die-hard Chevy man, its always been tough rooting for my favorite driver Matt Kenseth in a Ford. It will be even more difficult to root for him in a Toyota next season.

Steve
06/27/2012 03:45 PM
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I would be very surprised if Matt goes to a new team like Andretti. He has the pick of the litter of open rides next season so unless he goes after more money for a lesser quality ride, he will land at one of the big teams. I’m guessing Gibbs will be the one. If Matt ends up in the Home Depot car, it won’t be Gibbs decision but Home Depot’s.

I have a feeling Joey is not going to like how this all ends for him. He’s either NW bound or 4th car bound. None of which is an improvement over what he has now.

Yvonee
06/27/2012 04:18 PM
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This would be a HUGE loss for Ford. Not the first time either for Ford.

But if I’m a top driver I would want to drive a Chevy…the make that nascar likes….as well as John Middlebrook.

Robert Eastman
06/27/2012 05:08 PM
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When sponsors think NASCAR Sprint Cup team sponsorship and all the funding required to do it right… which goes way beyond the cost of the actual MEGA-Dollars paid to put the racecars on the tracks, the sponsors’ ROI requirements dictate that the “demographics” make sense!
How does Home Depot’s typical customer identify with Joey Logano, barely out of his teens? I’m a huge JL fan, but if Joey won half the races can the average middle-aged middle America homeowner really see Joey as… “one of us?” Actually, can they really identify with Carl Edwards?… NO!
Matt Kenseth IS the BEST MAN for the JOB… of representing Home Depot in the #20! From my perspective Matt fits their image even better than Tony Stewart did! No other “Top-Gun” in the “NASCAR racing world” can fill the role better than Matt! I hope he gets the ride! If so… he will finally get the recognition he’s due!

(I’m sure that Joey will win a lot of races and represent his new sponsor very well… in a fourth JGR Cup car!)

SHOEMAN
06/27/2012 05:48 PM
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I can see MATT in the #20. He would show THE CHOSEN ONE the way to the checker flag.