Kenseth Takes Last Look At Career With Roush
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Only Mark Martin’s departure from Roush Fenway Racing in 2006 has stirred more memories and emotions than the impending conclusion of Matt Kenseth’s tenure from the House that Jack Built.
Sunday’s 2012 season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be Kenseth’s career 472nd and last NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start for team-owner Jack Roush, who raised stock-car racing’s version of “Matty Ice” from a pup. Indeed, Kenseth readily admits he always envisioned himself as a “lifer” at RFR. But the reality of his exit from the team’s headquarters in Mooresville, N.C., finally has sunk in for Kenseth, who is headed to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2013 Cup campaign with all kinds of feelings about “what’s out there.”
“There’s a little bit of anxiety,” said Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion and two-time/reigning Daytona 500 winner. “There’s a lot of excitement and anticipation and looking forward to what that’s going to be like. It’s kind of unique that we’re still running this good with one of the best organizations in the sport and being able to move to another one. I think it’ll be really neat for me to see how a different organization goes about things and see if I can be successful, or not be successful, over there. I think it’ll be really good for me to see what’s out there at this point in my career.
“It’s a unique opportunity, something I never thought would happen. I really, honestly, thought I would retire here, but I guess things change over the years. I feel fortunate that if I’m not going to be here that I got a chance to go over to a first-class organization.”
Kenseth announced his plan to leave RFR and his signature No. 17 Ford Fusion in late June – a bombshell considering he had opened the season by scoring his second Daytona 500 victory and was leading the point standings. Kenseth’s 14 consecutive Cup campaigns with RFR marked him as the organization’s franchise player and successor to Martin, who spent 19 seasons with RFR beginning in 1988.
Kenseth, who qualified eighth for the 12-driver/10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, is sixth heading into Sunday’s 267-lap/400.5-mile event around HMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile oval. But Kenseth has been anything but a lame duck, having won Chase races at Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway to raise his career victory total to 24.
“Nothing, honestly, has really changed much,” said Kenseth, adding he has not been excluded from routine debriefing sessions. “I haven’t been involved in the 2013 stuff, obviously, because I’m not going to be here. Other than that they’ve been good-as-gold. I’ve still been involved as I can be. I’ve still been trying to give them the best feedback I can and help them as much as I can. In turn, they’ve been doing the same for me.”
Team-owner Roush said recently the organization, which is celebrating its 25th season in 2012, would “survive” Kenseth’s decision to leave. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who secured his second Nationwide Series championship in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at HMS, will move up to Cup as Kenseth’s replacement.
Kenseth, 40, said his relationship with Roush has not been noticeably affected by his decision to move on to JGR and its Toyota Camry organization in Huntersville, N.C.
“I think in some sense we’re both disappointed about certain things that happened or didn’t happen or whatever,” said Kenseth, a three-time winner this season. “I think we’re both disappointed. But I think our relationship is still basically the same. I’ve got a ton of respect for Jack and hope he still has a lot of respect for me. We’re still obviously both putting forth 100 percent of our resources to be successful – everybody’s seen the success we’ve had the last few weeks – so I don’t think any of that changed.”
Along the same lines, Kenseth said he expects his friendship with Robbie Reiser, RFR general manager and fellow-Wisconsin native, to remain intact.
“I don’t think that relationship will ever end,” said Kenseth, whose friendship with Reiser dates to 1997 and the latter’s role as crew chief in the Nationwide Series. “Robbie and I have always been good friends. I know Robbie really well, he knows me really well. I think he understands everything that went on and I don’t think it’ll change our relationship. The professional relationship is not the same but really, he never comes to the racetrack. He’s at the shop and I see him every week when I go to the shop. Sit in a lawn chair and talk to him a little bit, and I don’t think our relationship will really change at all.”
Fact is one of Kenseth’s favorite memories occurred prior to his first Cup start with Roush Fenway in the 2000 Daytona 500. Kenseth and Reiser had graduated to NASCAR’s elite series that offseason after launching their careers as short-trackers in Wisconsin.
“Just being in that race I remember was a big deal to me,” Kenseth said. “I remember walking down pit road with Robbie and looking up into the stands and seeing all those fans. Racing against such great drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin – all guys who we used to watch race on Sundays – and now being able to race against them in the biggest stock car race in the world was a special moment for two guys from Wisconsin.”
Kenseth earned his first career Cup win as a rookie in the season’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “That was a big night for us,” said Kenseth, who started 21st and led a total of 32 laps. “Dale Earnhardt Jr. and I had raced against each other coming up together from the Nationwide Series. When we both moved up to Cup, he had won that year (at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth) but I hadn’t yet, so I was feeling a lot of pressure to get a win. Dale actually dominated that race and we were able to get by him towards the end to get our first win. It was just an awesome moment.”
Kenseth won his first Daytona 500 in 2009, ironically, a season in which he failed to qualify for the Chase. The win on DIS’ high-banked, 2.5-mile quadoval came after starting 39th and battling handling issues with a pit strategy that placed Kenseth in the lead shortly before the race was called because of rain. Ironically, Kenseth’s DeWalt Tools-sponsored Ford led only seven laps.
“That was a cool day for us because it was Drew Blickensderfer’s first race as a Cup crew chief,” Kenseth said. “We actually had struggled that whole week leading up to the 500 and we just kept working on the car every single lap of practice. We finally got the balance and handling where we wanted it for the race and those guys did a great job with pit stops and strategy. We had made the pass for the lead right before it started raining and that was just a really neat race and a pleasant surprise.”
Kenseth added the 2012 Daytona 500 to his resume nine months ago, joining the short list of drivers who have won two or more editions of “The Great American Race.”
Three years after his first start, Kenseth claimed the 2003 Cup Series Championship via one win, 11 top-five, and 25 top-10 finishes. Kenseth’s final 90-point margin over Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports widely has been credited with NASCAR’s decision to implement the current Chase format.
“There was a lot that went into that Championship in 2003,” Kenseth said. “In 2002, we were able to win five races and had a great season. Going into 2003, I felt like we really had a shot to win the championship. We were able to put it all together.”
The typically stoic Kenseth briefly let his emotions show after his latest victory at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 21, when he overcame wall contact that damaged the right side of his car. Kenseth, who started 12th and led 78 laps on the 1.5-mile Kansas layout, choked-up as he spoke about a victory shared with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Kenseth and Fennig have been paired at RFR since 2010.
“It’s the most recent win that we’ve had, and unless things go really well for us at Homestead, it might be our last win at Roush Fenway,” said Kenseth, who will start Sunday’s race from 11th in the No. 17 Best Buy Ford. “I’m hopeful, however, that we can go out and win at Homestead.
“This year we were really dominant at the plate races, having a chance to win all four of them. We won two of them, which was wonderful, but it’s different to win a plate race rather than a normal race. This (Kansas) race we really had to do everything. The pit stops and the strategy worked out and got us into the lead. It just felt really good to win this for Jimmy and all the guys on the team because it had been a couple months since they knew I wasn’t going to be there next year and it was really a testament about the entire organization about never giving up. The team really proved that they’re giving me all they’ve got this season, regardless of my plans for the future.”
The 2000 Cup Rookie of the Year, Kenseth starts his final race for RFR with eight poles, 126 top-five finishes and 228 top-10 results along with those two dozen trips to various Victory Lanes.
“It’s been a while already and we’ve had some time to think about it,” Kenseth said of his RFR swan song. “I’ve been there so long. I have never raced for anybody else, so that will be really different. But I think if you look at our record and how long I’ve been at Roush Fenway I don’t think you could ever question the loyalty and the commitment from either side. Certainly I think I’ve been good to my sponsors and loyal to ‘em, and they’ve been the same to me.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments