1. How much magic will there be?
Once upon a time, Matt Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing made a lot of magic together. 24 of Kenseth’s 39 Cup wins came in a Roush Ford, along with his 2003 title, which is often (unfairly) maligned as the title run that forced the playoff system on the sport.
I don’t buy that. NASCAR was going to do it anyway and Kenseth’s stellar season was just an excuse. They could have changed the full-season system to reward wins more if they wanted to preserve it.
But at 46, can Kenseth find the winning formula again?
The bigger question may be whether the RFR cars are capable of winning on the intermediate tracks. Kenseth may be able to answer it definitively but it might not be the one he, the team or their fans want to hear. And it may be that the team isn’t expecting Kenseth to win, but rather to diagnose the real problem: Is Trevor Bayne the problem or has the team’s equipment fallen significantly behind the curve?
It’s likely a little of both. It’s not like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is setting the world on fire in RFR cars either, but while he’s come a long way, he isn’t on the level of Kenseth as a driver.
Kenseth’s return will no doubt make his fans very happy, and he provides the team feedback from easily the best driver available. But nobody should expect a miracle.
2. And what about the magic that never really was?
While we’re on the subject of miracles, the other side of the story is Bayne. He was once the hottest young talent in the garage on the heels of an unlikely Daytona 500 win in 2011, with considerable talk in the garage area since RFR put Stenhouse in a vacant Cup ride while keeping Bayne on a part-time schedule with then-satellite Wood Brothers Racing. Bayne was a Cup winner while Stenhouse’s XFINITY career was remembered as much for his propensity for crashing as for his back-to-back titles. A lot of people definitely questioned the logic.
But what if David Ragan, driving in that Daytona 500 for Roush Fenway, had not jumped a late restart and taken the subsequent penalty? While it’s impossible to deny that Bayne did everything right to put himself in that position, it’s pretty likely he wouldn’t have won. And you have to wonder: Would his Cup career have made it this far if Ragan had taken the win instead?
There’s no disputing that Bayne showed great promise, but he never quite lived up to it on the track. After a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis a few years ago, has he been more hampered by his health than he’s let on? Or it is simply a case of a driver not living up to the expectations everyone once had of him?
In the end, does it matter why?
3. But is there a bigger problem?
If Bayne is on the downside of his tenure at RFR, reason aside, why seek out Kenseth? Yes, his veteran presence can help the team diagnose and possibly fix some of what ails it. He’s also very popular. But why not test a younger driver in the seat, since that would be the obvious long-term solution?
The answer is that RFR has nobody in the pipeline who’s ready to race the Cup Series at a level that will advance the team. While most other Cup teams have strong driver development programs, RFR’s has fallen behind the curve in that series.
Ryan Reed isn’t in the top 10 in driver points in the XFINITY Series and hasn’t shown Cup-caliber talent; the rest of the team’s development drivers are part-time amid sponsor woes and lack experience. There isn’t anyone in Roush’s driver development backlog to take over for Bayne and run better.
In short, RFR has fallen from the powerhouse it once was in both the Cup and XFINITY Series, and there’s no quick fix for it. Kenseth may provide a Band-aid to staunch the bleeding a bit, but long0term there appears to be no solution for RFR.
4. Speaking of the XFINITY Series
Has anyone really noticed the lack of Cup drivers in the last two XFINITY races? They’re not eligible to enter the four Dash 4 Cash races, but has anyone really missed them?
Fans were treated to some great, hard racing at both Bristol and Richmond, and without the Cup drivers to talk about all day, the broadcasts showed a lot of drivers who don’t usually get as much airtime or recognition.
NASCAR’s justification for allowing the Cup stars to race in that series was that fans would respond better to seeing the big names on Saturday. The tracks would sell more tickets, TV ratings would be better and everyone was better off for it. But, at least recently, that hasn’t really been the case. I’d hazard a guess that very few fans stayed home simply because there weren’t any Cup guys in the race.
Does that all mean NASCAR should ban the Cup drivers outright? Not necessarily, but I’ve said before that they shouldn’t be able to run a car owned by their Cup owner or by anyone with an affiliation with their Cup owner. That’s simply because racing against Cup drivers is the best way for the younger drivers to learn to race against them.
But are they necessary to have a good race? Not in the least. And the TV broadcast should stop treating them as though they are.
5. Can you go home again?
As NASCAR’s ratings continue to tumble, fans wonder if the sport can survive, and there are two ways to look at it. One, it’s faltering. It’s hard to look at the ratings and crowds now compared with 15 or 20 years ago and not see a problem. But the sport grew, seemingly overnight, from a regional niche sport to a national phenomenon.
The problem with that is that fads rarely last.
But can NASCAR return to its pre-glory days? Well, no, not the way fans want it to. But downsizing the number of races and the distances traveled might actually be a good thing. There was a time when there were fewer parts of the country that didn’t have races and fans were clamoring for them. Maybe NASCAR gave away too much, too soon in the romance. Supply suddenly outstripped demand, and oftentimes, when people can’t have something, they elevate it to something more than it is.
Every year there’s a hot toy at Christmas and then everyone gets one and it’s not nearly as cool as it looked on TV. In part, that’s what happened here.
And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to readjust our “normal” a bit, and with that, our expectations. The problem is, downsizing to regional isn’t easy. Many of the tracks no longer operate or have the infrastructure to hold a Cup race that meets current fans’ expectations. Still, perhaps it’s time to pull back a bit, trim a few races (remind me again why Kansas or Texas, among others, need two races?) and stop trying to be something other than what NASCAR has always been.