Vito Pugliese · Thursday September 6, 2012
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With Tuesday’s announcement making official what everybody has known for the past two months, 2003 Winston Cup Champion Matt Kenseth has left Roush Fenway Racing, and will be moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. To say that Roush Fenway is a talent vacuum might not be much of an understatement. Over the course of the past five years, consider the drivers that they have lost: Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, and Matt Kenseth in the Cup Series alone. Sponsorship has taken a hit as well, adding to the list of Office Depot, UPS, AAA, DeWalt, Crown Royal, and Carhartt.
And let us not forget Tap ouT and Jeremiah Weed…
Meanwhile, it has taken two years to find suitable sponsorship to field a Nationwide Series car for the 2011 Daytona 500 champion, yet have arranged a ride for a guy who is most famous for breaking his ankle the night before his first NASCAR start. As Ford’s flagship – and really only self-sustaining team – RFR is still a force within NASCAR, but at a bit of a crossroads, one year removed from losing a championship by a tie-breaker.
Yes, the No. 17 team mustered a win in the Daytona 500 this year, and Greg Biffle is currently the Sprint Cup Series points leader. That being said, things just seem amiss with that organization. Carl Edwards has been a non-issue all season long, while undisclosed health problems with crew chief Bob Osborne conspired to prevent another shot at the title for the 99. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is making the move to Cup in 2012, while Trevor Bayne will finally get a full-time Nationwide ride, after a year of battling an apparent lack of any funding – despite winning the biggest race in America, and following it up with a Nationwide win of his own after battling back from Lyme Disease.
The No. 6 car that started it all in 1988 is still in mothballs, and the sponsorship issue continues to rear its ugly head across all their cars beyond the good folks at 3M and Fastenal. Ford has been kicking in a good amount of money to keep the No. 17 team afloat this season, and is a big part of their Nationwide program. Next year does not appear to be much different, and when was the last time you saw a Roush machine in the Truck Series? Is Erik Darnell working in a car wash or something?
Now Roush Fenway loses 13 year veteran of the organization, and one of the stabilizing veteran voices within the team, alongside Jimmy Fennig and Robbie Reiser.
Roush’s most recent loss is Joe Gibbs’ gain. For a team that has accomplished a lot throughout its 20 seasons, one thing it has never really had is a stabilizing force among its driving core. Bobby Labonte was the last of the sort at JGR, but that was almost 8 years ago – his last win coming in 2003. Yes, Tony Stewart delivered but it was during the Home Depot days that Smoke truly earned his rough around the edges reputation, setting the tone for a sponsor censuring a driver. Denny Hamlin has had flashes of brilliance and moments of maturity – followed by periods of distress, bottle chucking, and self-doubt. Kyle Busch has essentially been the mirror image of Stewart – sans championships.
JJ Yeley? Uh…yeah. He drove for them once too.
While JGR has struggled the past couple of years with Busch’s on-track antics and the No. 11 team coming unglued with two races to go in 2010, as well as the engine woes of their own last year – and this year’s TRD TuRDS – Matt Kenseth might just prove to be one missing link to thrust them to a Hendrick Motorsports-level dynasty in the coming years.
Speaking of racing dynasties, there is a third organization that plays into this merry go round of wheel holders. Joey Logano was announced shortly after as the new driver of the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil machines for 2013. Sam Hornish was apparently still under consideration for the ride – or a third team at Penske – but it’s Logano who will fill the void left by the suspended A.J. Allmendinger, and departed Kurt Busch.
It’s engineering in reverse, as Penske Racing is starting to travel down the same road that was just traveled by Joe Gibbs Racing.
As Penske moves to Ford for 2013, they are no longer going to be supplying their own engines, but becoming yet another customer of the Roush Yates motor mill. Penske engines have never hurt for power or reliability, and this may just be a stop-gap solution until they can evaluate their own engine program. While one could point to Tony Stewart using leased engines to power his way to a third championship in 2011, it has been engine problems galore for the No. 18 this year that has him hanging onto Chase eligibility by a thread.
With Logano you have another driver with boat loads of talent and ability, who just wasn’t able to get it done at Gibbs. The fresh start at Penske and different dynamic within that team may work to his benefit.
When JGR landed the next Jeff Gordon, they did probably the silliest thing possible: stick him in a championship car with a championship crew chief – and expected him to pick up where Tony Stewart left off. Had they followed the Hendrick Motorsports model of new car, new team, new crew chief and let them grow together, the outcome may have been more positive. Instead, Logano was left to try to fill Stewart’s shoes and girthy seat.
At Penske, Joey Logano will be teamed with Brad Keselowski, who has risen to prominence in NASCAR in the last 12 months, progressing from upstart to contender, and now a prime-time player as The Chase prepares to start after Saturday night in Richmond. Sponsor Shell should love him, following their fortunes with a pair of hot-tempered types in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, as well as the public relations disaster that was Allmendinger’s “What’s-an-Adderall?” admission. With Logano, BK will have a driver close to his own age to help motivate him to compete, and no ghosts or icons to live up to. He won’t be the third wheel within the organization either, and Keselowski now has a teammate he can rely on and draw from – something that has been missing with Busch’s untimely demise within The Captain’s ranks.
Of these three teams who stands to gain the most form these changes? Joe Gibbs Racing is the big winner by far, while Penske Racing is in a bit of a transition. I’d almost call it a tie if they had stuck with Dodge and they were able to add a few more teams, but the move to Ford I believe will end up being a bit of a detriment, despite the celebration of “benchmarking” within the Penske organization. This leaves one team out to lunch, and I feel that’s Roush Fenway Racing. Championship drivers don’t grow on trees in the Cup Series, and in this day and age, sticking around for more than three years is nothing short of a minor miracle.
Each year it seems a little of the soul of Roush Racing is whittled away, and Matt Kenseth is another part of that storied history that has been allowed to walk out the door — again.
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