The Frontstretch: 2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Matt Kenseth by Tony Lumbis -- Thursday December 6, 2012

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2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Matt Kenseth

Tony Lumbis · Thursday December 6, 2012


2012 Ride: No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
2012 Primary Sponsors: Best Buy, Zest, Fifth Third Bank, Valvoline, Fastenal, Ford EcoBoost
2012 Owner: Jack Roush, John Henry
2012 Crew Chief: Jimmy Fennig
Stats: 36 races; 3 wins, 13 top-5 finishes, 19 top-10 finishes; 1 DNFs; 7th in driver points
Best Finish: 1st, Three Times (Daytona 500, Talladega – October, Kansas – October

Average Finish: 11.1.

Matt Kenseth

High Point: It usually takes a calm, cool and collected individual to be able to emerge unscathed from chaos. For that reason, it should be no surprise that it was Matt Kenseth who took the checker flag in this year’s Daytona 500, capitalizing on his Gatorade Duel victory four days earlier. Rain postponed the race for the first time in its history…to Monday night no less. Furthermore, a freak accident with a jet dryer, a long red flag, and a green-white-checker finish pushed the closing laps into early Tuesday morning. When the dust settled, it was Kenseth hoisting his second Harley J. Earl trophy in victory lane.

Winning this race outright certainly had to feel sweet for the Wisconsin native since his 2009 victory was aided by mother nature ending the show after 152 laps. Furthermore, the victory cements Kenseth’s legacy a Roush Racing. He earned the “Cat in the Hat” his first championship in 2003, and now his first two Daytona 500 victories. The second accomplishment is particularly impressive given the restrictor plate racing has not always been this team’s strong point.

Low Point: The No. 17 team entered the Chase in prime position to send their driver off with this second championship before his departure for Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season. While in eighth place, Kenseth entered the Chase just nine points behind leader Denny Hamlin. However, the team stumbled out of the gate in the most unusual of ways, with a right front shock falling off of the Best Buy Ford at Chicago. The team made repairs, but could only salvage an 18th place finish, practically ending their championship hopes before the Chase entered its second event. Adding to the concern and conspiracy theories, Kenseth commented on the radio that a lot of stuff had been falling off his cars of late.

Despite winning two of NASCAR’s coveted final 10 races, Kenseth and company were never in contention to challenge Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson at the top of the standings. In fact, the team posted finishes outside of the top 10 in seven of the ten Chase races in what was a puzzling collapse for RFR as a whole (teammate Biffle started his “playoff” run with three straight finishes outside of the top 10).

Kenseth appeared to be poised to debunk the theories that a “lame duck” driver could not win the championship. However, when his team entered the stretch run, they simply could not replicate the success and consistency they showed during the rest of the season.
Summary: The 2012 season was one of many successes but also unmet expectations. While on the surface, it appeared to be a very typical “Kenseth-like” season, with three wins scattered among quiet and consistently solid finishes, many have to believe that in the end, this bunch was a lot better than seventh in the final standings.

The on track performance of this veteran driver was overshadowed by an announcement in June that Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. would be taking over the No. 17 ride in 2013 as Kenseth would move on to a “mystery team”. For months, speculation ran rampant in the garage area about which team that was, fueled by Roush’s comments that his driver was going to the “dark side”. Those that think this distracted the team and motivated some to sabotage their driver’s championship hopes should look at teammate’s Biffle’s early Chase performance. The fact of the matter is that when other teams stepped up at the year end, the RFR organization as a whole, took a step back.

2012 Team Ranking: While the No. 99 team of Carl Edwards was out to lunch for most of the 2012 season, the other two RFR cars performed quite well. Kenseth had one more win than his counterpart, but “The Biff” finished better in the point standings. A car shedding parts at a critical point of the season however, leaves Kenseth finishing a close second to the No. 16 team.

Off Track News: It should not be lost among all the silly season news that another Kenseth is turning some heads at local tracks as he makes his way through the ranks. Matt’s son Ross, took home his first Southern Super Late Model victory in April at Orange County Speedway. With that win, he became the second driver to win Super Late Model events in three of the country’s top series: Pro All Star Series, ARCA/CRA Super Series and ASA Midwest Tour. The other driver? Kyle Busch.

In case you haven’t heard, Matt Kenseth will be leaving the team he his driven for in the Sprint Cup Series since 2000 to pilot the No. 20 JGR Camry. Some may wonder why the 40 year old would want to leave an organization he has had so much success with at this point in his career. In this writer’s opinion, it came down to economics, not performance. Despite his impressive resume, finding sponsorship for the No. 17 team has been challenging of late, demonstrated by the plethora of paint schemes that adorned the car through this season and the numerous gaps being filled by Ford EcoBoost. There is no question that instability of sponsorship results in less financial resources which are so critical for success in this day and age. Kenseth, who acts as his own agent, certainly could have viewed three consistently sponsored cars at JGR as having the resources required to propel him to his next Sprint Cup championship.

2013 Outlook: There is no doubt that this new driver/team combination will be expected to hit the ground running and contend for wins and the overall prize next season. It is expected that he will bring the leadership presence that some say JGR has lacked since Tony Stewart departed after the 2008 season. The question will be how the calm demeanor of Kenseth will interact with the sometimes volatile personalities of new teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin.

2006 Grade: A-.
2007 Grade: A-.
2008 Grade: B.
2009 Grade: C.
2010 Grade: B+.
2011 Grade: A.
2002 Grade: A-.

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12/12/2012 07:17 AM

Would love to see the #20 in victory lane again in Feb. at Daytona. Best of luck Matt.