Kurt Busch won the 2004 Cup championship, the second in the history of Roush Fenway Racing, having spent his entire career coming up through the ranks with the organization. Less than 12 months later, Busch signed with Penske Racing more than a year before his contract was up and left the team he’d begun his NASCAR career with and taken to the highest peak. Now, Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Champion, two-time Daytona 500 winner and current Sprint Cup points leader is looking for work at the end of this season. Jack Roush announced Tuesday that Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. will be running the Cup series in 2013 in Roush Fenway’s third car, and Kenseth will be leaving the organization. While Kenseth did briefly run for his former crew chief Robbie Reiser’s self-owned team in Nationwide and Cup, for the vast majority of his career he’s been a Roush fenway driver. Now, just a little over four months since wining the Daytona 500, Kenseth has been given his walking papers.
Matt Kenseth is atop the Cup Series points after 16 races and is looking like he’ll be a strong contender for the championship this season. Unfortunately for Kenseth and most of the Roush Fenway drivers, this year has been a struggle on the sponsorship front for the No. 17. There have been no less than six different sponsors on Kenseth’s car during the first 16 races of the season. The company that has been represented more than any other has been Ford with their EcoBoost and EcoBoost Fusion schemes. That is more of a favor to Kenseth and Roush to keep them from running a blank hood than it is actual sponsorship. It is hard to believe that finding sponsorship for a series champion and the defending Daytona 500 champion is that difficult but, just as with Trevor Bayne last season, getting companies to put their name on the hood has been particularly tough for RFR.
Racing is expensive, whether running go-karts at local 1/7th-mile tracks or the Cup Series, and figuring out how to pay for it is difficult. However, RFR seems to have struggled more than most. While having never been privy to contract negotiations with RFR, from the outside, and hearing various reports in the garage, their organization seems to be more inflexible about the price of deals than other teams. There can’t be much more of an explanation when sponsors leave Roush Fenway to go to other teams to share hood space while Roush’s cars are struggling to get anyone on the hood.
To their credit, Jack Roush has kept 3M on Greg Biffle’s hood for years and, while it is pieced together from several sponsors, Carl Edwards’ hood has been filled for the entire season. But not that long ago, Office Depot was on Edwards’ hood before leaving to join Stewart Haas Racing. Crown Royal, who backed Kenseth last year, decided to pull out of the car sponsorship business after last season, and Sharpie, who backed Kurt Busch for much of his time at Roush Fenway, also pulled out of the deal. UPS, who had been in the business of sponsoring cars for some time, left after last year, which cost David Ragan his job and parked the flagship No. 6 for Roush.
The only common denominator through all of this has been Jack Roush. Again, having never been involved in negotiating a sponsor contract with RFR, this view is from the outside, but Roush’s pricing structure and inflexibility appears to sit at the heart of the sponsorship woes that have plagued the organization. He has mentioned in the past that he doesn’t drop prices because it would be unfair to the companies who have already signed on the dotted line, but it would seem like a smarter move to consider giving them a little more to equal out the deal rather than refuse a sponsor who cannot meet the high price of being on a Roush Cup car.
Don’t forget, it isn’t just Cup cars. Roush has been running blank hoods and quarter panels on Nationwide cars for a while, and parked Trevor Bayne’s planned full-time Nationwide effort this year due to lack of funding. While the Nationwide Series has seen more and more teams being mothballed, it is interesting that the defending series champion owner cannot get a sponsor to put their logo on his hood for the entire season.
It is quite ironic, actually, that not that long ago, Jack Roush had five Cup teams and put all of them in the Chase. As a result, the sanctioning body passed a rule that limited team ownership to no more than four for a given owner. Now Roush is struggling to put three cars on the track.
Even with the sponsorship issues, it is still surprising to see Kenseth packing his bags at the end of the season. While recent additions to the fan base of NASCAR might think that Carl Edwards is the face of Roush, in reality it has been Kenseth for more than half a decade. Mark Martin was the face of the organization before leaving in 2006. While Edwards started racing full-time in Cup in 2005, Kenseth had already been in the top series for five years and won a championship, and he was largely considered the face of the team, especially only being three years removed from his title. Kenseth has been a stalwart in the Ford camp and on the Roush payroll, backing his owner and supporting him through 15 years of racing even when his long-time sponsor Dewalt was chased away to the step-cousin Richard Petty Motorsports organization due to the high cost at RFR.
Loyalty is a rare thing in business these days, and Jack Roush has long treated his race team like a business. He is a great racing mind but it has long been rumored that his people skills are somewhat lacking. This latest instance, announcing that the leader in the point standings over halfway to the Chase is going to be out of a ride next season so that a Nationwide driver who is under a long-term contract to the organization can race in the Cup series next year, is just proof again. It took 15 years for Roush to win a title in the Cup series, and then he won two in a row. It has been eight years since that second title was secured and now, at the end of this season, the driver who was able to garner the first of the two for Roush will be joining the second title holder, driving for someone else. To use a twist an old cliché, don’t let the door hit you when it swings back in through your empty doorway.
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