Matt Kenseth has never been one to stand out in the crowd. Quiet and unassuming when you first interact with him, he doesn’t give the impression that he’ll win any popularity contests anytime soon. Ironically, with his sarcastic humor and easygoing nature, Kenseth actually can be one of the most engaging drivers in the NASCAR garage area, when he wants to be.
It’s that question of when which could make or break a season for four other men.
Of course, when it comes to driving ability, Matt’s talent is crystal clear. Without his longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser for the second of his four-week suspension, common sense would lead one to believe that Kenseth would struggle at California, a track where even the most minor of adjustments makes the difference between a win and 25th place. But the absence of the team’s true leader only strengthened Matt’s resolve, and Chip Bolin did a masterful job as fill-in crew chief en route to the No. 17’s first trip to victory lane in just the second race this season.
The win puts Kenseth in decent shape; despite ending the Daytona 500 with a wrecked racecar, he’s 12th in points even with a 50-point penalty for Reiser’s violation, in perfect position to pick up where he left off in 2006. Once Reiser comes off his four-race suspension at Bristol in March, the sky appears to be the limit for a team hitting on all eight cylinders.
For the rest of Roush Fenway’s four cars, though, the prospects aren’t as bright. David Ragan is a surprising fifth in points, but has admittedly finished better than he should after spinning once in each race this season, on his own, lucky to avoid the wall each time. Cutting through the Daytona carnage en route to a fifth-place Lucky Charm can’t hide the fact Ragan ran at the back of the pack for the majority of the 500. After a 16th at California, it’s clear the rookie still has plenty to learn.
Then, there’s the rest of the Roush Fenway contingent; Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray, none of whom have been overly impressive to start off the year. At one of his best tracks, Biffle struggled with new crew chief Pat Tryson en route to 15th at California; considering he dominated the very same race last year before his engine failed, the run could be viewed as nothing less than a step back. 15th far outshined Edwards and McMurray, though, who finished 29th and 37th respectively after rough days for both of them. Things are off to such a rough start for McMurray that he’s currently outside the Top 35 in owner points; should that carry over through Bristol, the No. 26 would have to qualify on speed, a shocking turn of events for a team that won the Nextel Cup title just a little over two years ago. While Biffle and Edwards aren’t in quite that bad a shape, both of them find themselves outside the top 15 in points, with a best finish of 15th in four starts between them.
While it’s still pretty early in the year to draw firm conclusions, the hints of a continued downward cycle at Roush Fenway are troubling. Remember, in 2005 this team had all five of its drivers in the top 10 in Nextel Cup points; now, it seems Kenseth’s team is the only one assured of taking that step. For the other four, it seems they’ve fallen a step behind, watching as Team Roush becomes Kenseth and everyone else.
In the past, this is where Roush Fenway would turn to veteran Mark Martin to help bring his teams together, except Martin is no longer there. Instead, he’s over at Ginn Racing, where he’s been incredibly successful right off the bat, leaving a further sign of cracks within the armor of an organization he left behind. With the veteran gone, that begs the question, who will step in and fill the void within Roush Fenway? Who’s capable of leading the information sharing, the confidence-building, and getting everyone working together on the same page?
That gets us back to Kenseth and the question of when.
This is never a man that’s looked to step up to a position of leadership. Kenseth has always done his thing and proved his talents, and that’s been enough. In no way is he looking to step up, but should he be? A Roushketeer since 1998, Kenseth is by far the longest-tenured driver of the five Roush employees left driving at the Nextel Cup level, as well as the most successful. Is it his prerogative to steer the ship, similar to what Jeff Gordon has done at Hendrick, Tony Stewart has done at Joe Gibbs and Jeff Burton has done at Richard Childress Racing?
It’s a rhetorical question, but Hendrick, Gibbs and RCR have provided some easy answers. Burton’s the most visible one, single-handedly changing the career of Kevin Harvick and turning two of Childress’s three teams into championship contenders, all the while accelerating the development of second-year wheelman Clint Bowyer to leave that team not far behind. But he’s not the only one that makes a difference. Stewart’s guiding hand has quickly enhanced the development of now super sophomore Denny Hamlin, giving Gibbs a 1-2 punch; it took a while for Stewart’s guidance to help JJ Yeley, but a strong early-season performance leaves his team not far behind the other two. Then, of course, there’s Gordon’s well-publicized mentorship of Jimmie Johnson, a situation that’s paid off in the form of a Nextel Cup championship trophy.
Should Kenseth be on that list? It’s not written in any superstar’s driver contract that they need to do the type of things necessary to hold up an entire organization, not just themselves. No one’s saying that Kenseth is being a bad teammate; he’s well-liked, well-respected, and does what he needs to do to be a championship contender. But with the rest of Roush teetering around him, one wonders if now is the time where the mild-mannered man from Wisconsin needs to step up and do something more.
Yes, it’s only February; everyone understands that. But when problems appear to be brewing, it’s always better to nip them in the bud, rather than take a question of when and turn it into a prognostication of what if. For Matt Kenseth, the question of whether he needs to step up is now. Whether he’ll heed the call, or whether he even sees it as necessary, is something to follow over the next month should Roush Fenway continue to struggle.
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