When one thinks of stability with regard to Sprint Cup racing, it’s likely that one thinks of Matt Kenseth and his iconic No. 17 Ford. The 2003 Cup champion has, for more than a decade, been a continual race winner and Chase contender, a rock of composure and consistency complimented by a “Killer Bees” pit crew that never falters.
It’s hardly surprising that a driver that’s proven unflappable (sans when an unstable teammate appears ready to go 15 rounds on Martinsville’s pit road) wants stability as much he’s been associated with it. With Penske Racing coming back to the blue oval for 2013 and the sponsorship well at Roush Fenway Racing proving so dry that both the Nationwide and Cup programs have had to contract in the past 12 months, one can hardly blame Kenseth for taking a deal in hand for the next season and beyond. This move, drastic as it may be, is not surprising.
But Kenseth’s decision to leave Roush caught someone off guard… the organization’s namesake.
“I will say that I was as surprised as most of you must have been when I learned that he would not be signing with us to go forward” Jack Roush told the media Friday at Kentucky. “It was a surprise and I had no idea that we were at that point.”
It was as drastic a departure from Roush’s last contract-related press conference in August, when the owner and Carl Edwards all but read a script to the media at Pocono that made their extensive negotiations seem like a handshake deal at the local pub, even going as far as to set ground rules for what questions could and could not be asked of Cousin Carl’s reportedly epic package. On that day, Jack Roush was in total control… of his superstar, of the press, of the Ford Racing flagship.
Friday at Kentucky was not an instance of control. It was more an exhalation, an attempt to come to terms with perhaps the greatest blow this organization could have to absorb: the team’s only active Cup champion, the senior bedrock, a man who as Roush put it has “his DNA… all over the things that we are known for and our success” is gone following this year.
That press conference may go down as the moment where the gravity of the situation hit the longtime Ford owner… because the ramifications for this deal are deep. As mentioned, Kenseth is the only driver in the fold at Roush with a Cup title under his belt; Greg Biffle, the new senior in the RFR camp for 2013, finished runner-up in the rookie of the year battle that same 2003 campaign. It is Kenseth who has the longest developed relationship with general manager Robbie Reiser. And in a 2012 campaign that sees Kenseth leading the points on the strength of his second Daytona 500 title in four seasons, the same Carl Edwards that Jack Roush did everything (including opening the company books) to keep in the fold sits winless outside the top 10 in points. The multi-million dollar franchise would miss NASCAR’s playoffs if they started today.
And as for the replacement driver tabbed, one Ricky Stenhouse Jr… it is true that Stenhouse has earned a great deal of respect, and rightfully so, for both his tenacity after a horrendous first half of 2010 and for his aggressive nature on the track. There’s also that 2011 Nationwide Series championship and the strong 11th place showing he put together in his Cup debut during last year’s Coca-Cola 600.
But in moving Stenhouse to Kenseth’s seat, none of the “problems” facing the No. 17 team are solved. Sure, Roush has had to float races to keep Kenseth racing this year, unable to find a full season of backing for a Cup car. This same organization has been trying for twice that long to find full-time backing for Stenhouse at just the Nationwide Series level… and they have failed. The sponsorship search does not get easier with this driver change.
And while Stenhouse has proven a capable driver, that senior leadership role is not going to be filled by a rookie driver. It’s questionable whether he’ll ever be able to play that role at Roush period. It’s hard to forget the tensions between Stenhouse and Edwards that nearly boiled over on the Nationwide circuit a year ago, including the summer Iowa race where Edwards all but destroyed Stenhouse’s car on a final lap charge to the checkers. Stenhouse is far from a loose cannon, but in a battle of stoicism and dealing with a fiery teammate in Edwards, I’m taking Kenseth seven days of the week.
This is all assuming that Stenhouse makes the Cup deal work. Look at the recent list of development drivers in the Roush fold; Todd Kluever, Erik Darnell, Danny O’Quinn, Colin Braun, David Ragan… how many of them panned out? Driver development is not something that has been a strong suit for this organization for years now, yet the keys to the third Cup car are now in the hands of another homegrown product.
All of this because, as the owner openly admitted, “I had no idea that we were at that point” with his most accomplished driver. Regardless of the reason, be it Kenseth’s long-standing habit to be silent on contractual issues, a sexy new deal or the gargantuan effort to keep Carl Edwards happy a year ago leading the Cat in the Hat to neglect the one driver on the roster that actually has hoisted the hardware, such a situation can only be described as a complete and utter failure of management. Considering that Roush Fenway Racing is now facing the prospect of Penske Racing and red-hot Brad Keselowski coming to play for the same Ford dollars they’ve long depended on, such a disaster could not come at a worse time. There is true instability at the helm of Ford Racing’s flagship.
Whereas for Kenseth, the stability continues even if the number and car make changes for 2013. Though it was a struggle at first following the departure of Robbie Reiser, Kenseth has successfully navigated crew chief changes, proving to be a contender in 2012 with a fellow champion in Jimmy Fennig calling the shots. He followed up a week of speculation and non-stop questioning with a workman-like top 10 effort at Kentucky, his seventh in eight races and one that kept him in the points lead heading to Daytona, a track where he won the last race.
And as for the ongoing debate as to whether or not a lame-duck can truly compete for a Cup title, past history says yes… because past history bears out little correlation between becoming a lame-duck and performance changing. When Ryan Newman announced in the midst of an ugly slump that he was leaving Penske Racing for Stewart-Haas in the summer of 2008, the team didn’t suddenly solve their aero push problem. When Tony Stewart announced his own departure from Gibbs that year, he didn’t suddenly morph from a slow starter that scored only six top 10s in the first 14 races (teammate Kyle Busch won four races in that same span) to title contender; his only win came courtesy of NASCAR’s “grand theft auto race” job on Regan Smith at Talladega.
It works the other way as well. Kurt Busch’s top 10 finishing average went up after he announced he was leaving Roush Racing for Penske in 2005, while his DNF rate went down. Kyle Busch’s top 10 finishing average went up after being forced out at Hendrick in 2007. Hot teams stay hot, cold teams stay not, regardless of where the driver is going says recent history. In short, Kenseth’s a title contender as of today, there’s no reason to think it won’t stay that way.
Another year, another Chase berth, another run at the title for Matt Kenseth. Mr. Stability is still there, even if he’s racing someplace else.
And even if the House of Roush teeters in the wake of his departure.