The Frontstretch: Vexing Vito: Another One Bites The Dust at Roush Fenway Racing by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday September 6, 2012

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Vexing Vito: Another One Bites The Dust at Roush Fenway Racing

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.

Mark Martin, now with Michael Waltrip Racing saw firsthand the slow but steady buildup of sponsorship problems at Roush Fenway Racing. Is the problem, at this point more serious than anyone’s giving credit for?

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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09/06/2012 06:30 AM

Vito,thank you for acknowledging that Joey Logano is still a talented driver.

09/06/2012 10:18 AM

And the beat goes on! Times are changing. But changes are not necessary always for the better. When I heard Jack Rouch´s comment that he was surprised Matt Kenseth was leaving I was sad for Jack, not so much that he lost Kenseth but that he obviously has lost control of a company he started and built. One would think that a racing team’s driver selection would be one of the most important decisions a team would make. Why would Jack allow someone else to decide whether Kenseth goes or stays. At least he should have been up to date how the negotiations were going along. Or, at the very end have the power to sign off or veto the decision. Or maybe, he didn’t´t what to look Kenseth in the eyes and say “Here is your pink slip”. Based on the structure of the company, Well Jack you might well be the next one out the door. You may never see it coming I bet the starting selection of Mark Martin was not done under the current RFR procedures.

I like Jack am 60 years plus in age. From the old school. I ask everyone to just stop, think and remember. Can anyone imagine for a second, someone coming up to Junior Johnson and telling him, “You will have a new driver next year and his name is.”
Junior Johnson is a very smart man. He saw this “new age” coming and got out of the business before he got run over with sponsor’s dollars and their board meeting decisions.

This really just another example of how American society has turned into people making decisions that have no qualifications but lots of dollar power. How sad.

Carl D.
09/06/2012 11:26 AM

Vito… You (and JER) are so right. The whole business model for Nascar teams has undergone major changes over the last decade or so. It’s a direct result of the overwhelming cost for a team to be competitive. Sponsors have to provide huge amounts of cash, and for this they demand more than just their logo across the hood of the car and a few driver appearances at company functions. Adding to the problem is the fact that race attendance and TV ratings are down due to the quality of the product, so the value to the sponsor is reduced as well. It’s a failing business model and most of us who have followed the sport over the years have seen it coming for a long time.

With teams the lifeblood of the sport, Nascar must take actions to bring down costs for the teams and to enhance the value for potential sponsors.

The health of this sport has been in one man’s hands for a decade now. Brian France has stubbornly defended his poor decisions and refused to acknowledge his failure at the helm. The fact remains that the sport is crumbling under his poor management and his lack of leadership. Any CEO who performed so poorly would have been fired a long time ago, but Brian is no real CEO; he’s just Bill Jr.‘s boy. I hate to say it, but Nascar hasn’t hit rock bottom yet; it’s going to continue to get worse until there’s a change in management. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

09/06/2012 01:36 PM

@Robin1: I will also acknowledge Joey Logano is a talented driver and beyond that I will say he had little chance at JGR to mature into the driver his talent suggests he can be for, essentially, the same reason I was to my Mother a little boy until the day she died.

Vito, JER, CarlD: I agree will all of you and the only thing useful I can add is I believe NASCAR as a sport and as an institution is approaching what Malcolm Gladwell theorized in his book The Tipping Point. He defined it as “…the moment of critical mass, the threshold, and the boiling point. It is the point when everyday things reach epidemic proportions. There are three distinct characteristics of epidemics – contagiousness, the fact that little causes can have big effects, and that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment.”

The real trick, and it is a trick of mammoth difficulty, is to see in advance where the tipping point may be reached though in hindsight it often seems obvious. In my opinion in NASCAR’s case the point is coming right close.

Andy D
09/06/2012 04:22 PM

“Trevor Bayne…despite winning the biggest race in America”

2nd biggest. The Indy 500 is still first, with the largest one-day attendance of any event in the USA.

“As Penske moves to Ford…point to Tony Stewart using leased engines…the No. 18 this year that has him hanging onto Chase eligibility by a thread.”

This paragraph was really hard to follow and ultimately says nothing. Three different engine manufacturers, three different builders, two different years. There’s no commonality there, and I couldn’t figure out who the subject of the paragraph was.

On the whole, I agree with your article. As I saoid in a recent comment on this site, RFR has bucketloads of cash and support but has never capitalized on them and seems to suffer a lack of leadership and focus. It appears that after the 2003-2004 Championships they just wandered off. Jack’s two plane crashes haven’t done him any favor either.

09/06/2012 04:46 PM

Vito, while reading this a thought struck me that I’ll toss out there. Laugh at this if you want but consider it. Penske certainly didn’t come to Ford cheap. They are a solid team, with a solid foundation, long term sponsors, chassis building capabilities, engine building capabilities, now what led to Ford and Penske joining forces? Could it possibly be that Ford doesn’t have the certainty with Roush that they once had? That by teaming with Penske they were covering their bases? That maybe they too have seen the issues at Roush just as Matt and others have seen and acted on. Jack himself recently admitted that he is much more involved in the mechanical side than the administrative. Not having a clue to a 16 year star employee leaving does send a message.

Roger Penske did not walk into this Ford deal to be an also ran, a second class operation to Jack Roush that can be taken to the bank! I just think there is more to come from Ford, Roush, Penske. And yes, Penske has the monetary ability to purchase Roush should it come to that. the “cat in the hat” vs “the Captain”, I know where my money will be bet.

09/06/2012 06:56 PM

You made a great point that Gibbs is partly responsible for Logano under-performing. He and Zippy were a bad match from the start. They should have paired Zippy with Kyle instead of asking him to take what he probably saw as a huge step backward. Regardless, I think the change in scenery will be good for Logano, and Kenseth is obviously a great catch for Gibbs.

Steve K
09/06/2012 11:59 PM

I don’t ever recall Trevor Bayne starting an Indy 500, much less winning one. Watch your choice of words more carefully.

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