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?
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.
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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