Did You Notice?… Sponsorship is what’s making the Silly Season world go round these days? Matt Kenseth didn’t have enough of it at Roush Fenway; Joey Logano had it stripped from him at Joe Gibbs Racing. Their financial problems, not personality conflicts or performance issues led to the biggest day of announcements we’ll see for 2013.
Kenseth’s time in front of the cameras came first, one of the most poorly kept secrets in NASCAR history due to a contract that kept him from “officially” announcing his move until a certain date. (Side note: When will NASCAR get with the 21st Century? Do they really think an archaic piece of paper will keep the Twitterverse silent for three months? Hello… someone get Jack Roush an iPhone and a paper shredder – that contract should have been ripped up and a press conference held back in July. But I digress.)
In reality, we all know this deal was sealed months ago, when an unhappy JGR sponsor in Home Depot complained right at when Kenseth realized his own employer would never have the funding to keep him long-term. Millions at RFR were already committed to keep younger drivers Carl Edwards, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Trevor Bayne above water; across the way, fellow 40-something teammate Greg Biffle had a long-term deal with 3M and was leading the points. As expected, time and again Tuesday, Kenseth dodged the money and/or leaving RFR question. But even during a well-branded presser, one that centered around hope and change (after all, Obama is in town) there were moments where you could read between the lines.
“’I’ve been at Roush for so long, I was so comfortable there and that would have been the easiest thing to do,” he said at one point, discussing the transition to JGR. “Being there 15 years, I know almost everybody that works there. You know the place and you’re real comfortable…”
It was spoken, at that moment almost as if, even in the middle of this new reality Kenseth was wistfully thinking of what could have been. He’s leaving a best friend in Biffle, a likable crew chief in Jimmy Fennig and a team which, at midseason was leading the points themselves and one of Sprint Cup’s strongest championship contenders. Why would you leave a team that was in position to win you a second title? At 40, with the hit-or-miss Chase you never know if Kenseth will get another chance, especially with the No. 20 at JGR – a team that hasn’t made the postseason since 2008. In fact, only one thing’s for certain; with this deal, he’s lost any hope of a NASCAR title for 2012. The No. 17 car has just one top-5 finish since the Kenseth/Stenhouse switch was announced for 2013; with Hendrick’s recent dominance, they’ll be lucky to finish the Chase fifth or better.
I think that’s why Kenseth spent the day never giving us a clear answer on why he’s at Gibbs. Most athletes, when free agents look for the best opportunity that fits them; Kenseth was forced from what he thought was a lifetime gig after getting dumped by his boss. It’s all a blur after that; but sadly, it isn’t the first time Jack Roush has thrown a veteran into the Silly Season market like this one. Jeff Burton, in 2004 had a similar fate once sponsorship dried up on the No. 99 car. The door was opened for Carl Edwards then, a move that led to instant success in the same way Roush believes Stenhouse can take the next step. Stats-wise, last year’s title runner-up Edwards was clearly the better move long-term. Burton has been good, not great in his Roush afterlife, developing into an elder statesman at Richard Childress Racing while racking up a handful of Chase appearances and victories.
I expect the same type of track record for Kenseth here; the long-term move was to guarantee an extension of his career, any way possible and JGR was the answer that was there at the time. Meanwhile, owner Joe Gibbs on this deal knows the real winners are sitting inside the cockpits of his No. 11 and No. 18 Toyotas. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, both oh-so-close to holding that Sprint Cup trophy now get to meet every week with somebody who has one. Championship experience, combined with respect will make a big difference inside a camp that, for the past four years was two youngsters pushed into a role of maturity with a teenage sidekick that seemed in way over his head. It was the Three Stooges of NASCAR Emotion Run Amok – and it cost them.
But that chapter, almost immediately has turned the page. Think the JGR duo that remains is too egotistical and bull-headed to realize what they’ve got? Think again.
“Between him and Bill Elliott,” says Hamlin of Kenseth, “These are two guys that I try to model my driving style after.”
“Having Matt’s talents,” added Busch. “Where he’s a past champion in the sport, he can win races and be capable of running well every single week, we felt like it was just a possible better opportunity for us.”
Even Joe Gibbs was waxing poetic, on cloud nine recognizing Kenseth was perhaps one of a handful of names that could have kept Home Depot from jumping ship.
“I think he’s done great things and to win a championship — we all know how hard that is,” said the car owner. “We’re thrilled and I am excited to think that we have Denny, Kyle and Matt all sitting in a meeting talking things over — I would have to think it would be hard for us to miss something with those three guys on the feedback.”
What will be missing, of course starting in 2013 is Logano, the “next generation” driver whose next step will be with someone else. Like Gibbs, Penske jumped at the chance to grab this available wheelman, who realized the money was never going to be there at JGR (sound familiar?) Sure, a full-time Nationwide schedule was always in the cards for 2013 but that’s like taking a guy who’s stayed at the Trump Plaza for four straight years and booting him out into a Motel 6. In order to survive, the 22-year-old figured the best way was to run full-time in Cup; part-time is a part-time shift towards being outside the sport altogether.
That’s why Penske came along at the perfect time, a potential lateral move at a time when sponsorless drivers hit the unemployment line. And who was unhappy? Shell/Pennzoil, which had been through a temper tantrum-filled, embarrassing 2011 (Busch), then got dragged into the drug mess with A.J. Allmendinger (winless) before settling on Sam Hornish, Jr. to finish the season in the car.
Again, it’s not the “perfect fit,” teammate Brad Keselowski clearly the head honcho. But what other option did Logano have? Front Row Motorsports? To fulfill a dream, truly becoming the best his generation has produced the man can’t be out there driving jalopies.
And he won’t. My prediction is Kenseth sixth, Logano seventh in points next year – and each one wins a race in the Chase.
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