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Kenseth Talks About Return To Cup

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 27 2018

Matt Kenseth is headed back to the Cup Series. He talked about his expectations this week. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Matt Kenseth’s impending/prodigal return to Roush Fenway Racing is a curious mix of a championship-caliber driver in need of redemption and a proud organization scrambling to remain relevant in NASCAR’s results-centric Cup Series.

Kenseth, who unceremoniously lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last season, will return to RFR as a part-time driver of the No. 6 Ford Fusion beginning with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series night race at Kansas Speedway on May 12. The 2003 Cup champion with co-owner Jack Roush’s No. 17 team, Kenseth will share the No. 6 with current driver Trevor Bayne in a yet-to-be determined number of races. Figure that number to be…a lot.

A protégé of Mark Martin, Kenseth drove Roush’s No. 17 Ford for 13 seasons _ a run that included the organization’s first Cup title as well as its historic 300th victory in the 2012 Daytona 500. “Matty Ice” moved from Roush to JGR’s Toyota organization beginning in 2013 but was released at the end of the 2017 season to make room for rising star Erik Jones in the No. 20 Camry.

Six months into living the life of an every-day “Gymnastics Dad,” Kenseth received a phone call from Roush about his interest in maybe returning in the roles of driver/mentor to Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. while also giving the organization the big-name presence it sorely lacks.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t really feel like I have anything to prove. I don’t,” Kenseth said during a news conference along with Roush, Martin and RFR President Steve Newmark at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday. “Obviously, every time you get in a race car and go to a racetrack you want to be your best and you go there with the idea of trying to win and that’s never gonna change as long as I drive.

“I would say that this opportunity is probably as much about the rest of it _ the rest of my role and possible future role than it is just the driving. If it was just strictly about driving, I probably would have been at Daytona driving something. It’s more about the rest of it. It’s more about coming here and trying to help and coming to see what the future looks like for me _ three, four, five years down the road, if it’s something I’m good at _ trying to help in the shop, trying to just kind of see what it’s like.”

Once the flagship of Ford Motor Company in Cup, RFR has slipped to third behind Stewart-Haas Racing and Penske Racing on the Blue Oval pecking order. Consider that SHR’s Kevin Harvick won three of the first four Cup races this season, while teammate Clint Bowyer added another. While Roger Penske’s drivers have yet to win this season, newcomer Ryan Blaney has been a consistent front-runner on a team already featuring 2012 Cup champ Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

Meanwhile, RFR’s Stenhouse and Bayne are buried in the point standings at 19th and 26th, respectively. Neither has won one of NASCAR’s all-important “stages” this season, meaning neither has a playoff point. Stenhouse’s best finish in nine starts in the No. 17 Ford is a fourth-place run at Bristol Motor Speedway. Famous for being Danica Patrick’s former main squeeze, Stenhouse, 30, scored his two Cup wins last season in restrictor plate races at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway. Stenhouse also won NASCAR Xfinity Series titles for RFR in 2011 and 2012.

Bayne, 27, who has driven the No. 6 made famous by Martin the last three seasons, has recorded a best result of 12th at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth this season. His lone victory to-date was huge _ the 2011 Daytona 500 while driving the famed No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing.

Enter Kenseth with his 39 Cup victories, 181 top-fives, 327 top-10s and 18 poles. The Cambridge, Wis., native also is one of only six drivers in the sport’s 75-year history to win a Cup championship, the Cup Rookie of the Year Award and the Daytona 500. Kenseth was shown the door at JGR after having qualified for NASCAR’s playoffs in 13 of its 14 seasons.

“Everybody thought Mark was coming out of retirement,” Kenseth, 46, joked during his opening remarks. “Obviously, it’s a big day, I think, for Roush Fenway Racing, a big day for me and my family. I’m real proud to be able to drive the No. 6 car.

 A funny story.  When I started at Roush Fenway and Mark met me at Talladega back in ’97 and he kind of went to Jack and said, ‘Hey, I think this is a new, young guy’… by the way, I’m still pretty young…‘And I think you need to get him in here.’  As it went on for a year or so Mark was like, ‘Look, I’m not gonna do this much longer and when I get out of the No. 6 car I really want you to take over and drive the No. 6 car.’

“So that was the plan and I think I was maybe 24 or 25 at the time. If I would have waited for him to get out and retire, I would have been about 39 my rookie year, so it took a lot longer than we thought, but I’m proud to be driving the No. 6 car. I’m looking forward to going to Kansas and obviously it means a lot to me to reunite with everybody at Roush Fenway Racing and I’m really looking forward to the challenge and really looking forward to getting to work soon.”

Roush noted that Hall of Famer Martin made the trip from Batesville, Ark., to Charlotte to sign-off on Kenseth’s return.

“The linkage between Mark and Matt is very strong,” Roush said. “Mark approached me in 1998, I think, and said that he was having conversation with this Busch Grand National rookie driver that worked hard on his cars and thought about racing like he did, and thought it would be a good place for him to join us and to work with Mark. He thought he could help him and he seemed to be worth the trouble. So he had two years in the Xfinity program, and then we moved him into the No. 17 car in the Cup Series for 12 years. He won 24 Cup races and many Xfinity races in that timeframe and had great success and I’m anxious to get back on track and win some more races.

“We think Matt will give us a chance to work with some of our drivers that are rookies and also with Trevor and Ricky, who will benefit from his experience.  Thanks to Mark and thanks for Matt.  I look forward to the future.”

RFR also announced a multi-year partnership with Wyndham Rewards®, the loyalty program of Wyndham Hotel Group, as a new primary on the No. 6. Wyndham will join longtime partners AdvoCare and Performance Plus on the No. 6 program.

Never known as a great quote with the media, Kenseth was unusually chatty and long-winded during the news conference. An edited transcript follows, including a comment from Martin noting a personal similarity between wife Arlene and wunderkind Kenseth:

QUESTION: Steve, how will this situation play-out in terms of schedule?

STEVE NEWMARK: “The intent is for this to be a shared program with Trevor and Matt continuing in the car for the rest of the year.  To us, this is an incredible opportunity.  It’s not only special for us to reunite Matt and Jack and to have Wyndham help us reunite another family, but we look at Matt as the best in the business at helping to assess and diagnose and figure out how to make cars better.  So our goal is to continue to race for wins and championships and we think Matt gives us a great opportunity to do that and will help Trevor, Ricky and all of our young guys in Xfinity.

“But as far as the details and how it will be split with Trevor and Matt, that is still being worked out.  We know Matt will be in his first race in Kansas coming up and Trevor will obviously be in the car this weekend (at Talladega) and next weekend (at Dover International Speedway).  Then we’ll be working through some of those details. I know a lot of that stuff is of interest _ the number of races and all of that stuff _ we’ll be announcing kind of which ones will be the Wyndham races.  They have a significant number going forward and we’ve obviously got a couple of great partners already on the car with AdvoCare and Performance Plus that we’re working through.  Our focus right now is bringing Matt back into the fold and seeing how he can help us become a better organization.”

QUESTION: Will Matt drive in the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway next month?

STEVE NEWMARK: “Matt will be in the All-Star Race.  Yes.”

QUESTION: Matt, what are you most excited about coming back into this situation?

MATT KENSETH: “I’m excited about all of it.  It’s not like from the middle of last year until now there hasn’t been any opportunities to go do some things, but you kind of know when something feels right.  Certainly, to come back and hopefully help Jack, who has done so much obviously for my career, hopefully get Roush Fenway Racing running better again.

“I feel like they’ve been definitely trending in the right direction.  Ricky won a couple of races last year at the restrictor plate tracks and, like I said, certainly I feel like RFR is on the upswing. I think it’s a good challenge for me that I’m looking forward to and not just the driving part, but a lot of the rest of it too, to hopefully get in there and get my hands dirty and try to evaluate what we can do better _ what we’re doing good and what we can do better _ and to go on from there.  Just really all of it.

“The timing, I know to you guys it might seem weird, but the timing was right and it was the right deal. It’s exciting bringing a new sponsor into the sport at the same time and it all just lined up and seemed like the right thing at the right time.”

JACK ROUSH: “When I contacted Matt to see if he had an interested in being involved in a limited program with objectives that we’ve set forth, his question to me was, ‘Why did it take so long for me to call?’^”

QUESTION: So, why did it take so long?

JACK ROUSH:  “I still had a little bit of a rawness over the fact that he left me when he did. We had another championship out there, I thought, that we could have had in short order. I missed that, so it took me a little while to get over it.”

QUESTION: Matt, what was your reaction when you got the call from Jack?

MATT KENSETH: “It feels like the right deal at the right time. It’s with Jack. It’s an interesting challenge for me and not just being a driver, I hope I can be much more to the organization and I’m hoping that there are a lot of different ways I can help in. I don’t know that I can, but I hope that there is and that’s kind of what I’m looking forward to. 

It’s fairly small right now _ down to two teams and it’s leaner _ and I feel like they’re on the right trajectory. I feel like there are a lot of advantages to where they are at right now, and I’m looking forward to getting in there and being a part of it and getting back immersed in the organization and kind of hopefully evaluate some things, hopefully continue projecting upwards.”

QUESTION: Is it safe to say this deal is longer than one year?

MATT KENSETH: “There are a lot of things we’re working through right now.  We kind of got this all together pretty quickly, but I think that’s what all of our hopes are _ is to continue this long-term and get back to turning the TV on and seeing the Roush cars up front every week.”

JACK ROUSH: “We see a potential for Matt being involved with the company and race team past his driving.  We haven’t talked much about that, but we certainly feel like he’s come home to us. He’s a significant part of the history and legacy, as is Mark.  We have two great drivers and great people that have helped us build this thing and we’d like to keep them involved if we can going forward at some level.”

QUESTION: Still, to clarify, is it a multi-year deal?

STEVE NEWMARK: “We generally don’t get into details of the contract, but our view is that Matt will be with us for as long as we can. He and Jack have forged a pretty strong relationship and our role is to have Matt continuing to drive until he no longer has that desire, and knowing Matt that will be for many years into the future.”

QUESTION: Will Roush Fenway continue with only two cars for the foreseeable future?

STEVE NEWMARK:  “That is correct.”

QUESTION: What happens with Trevor and his race schedule? He has a tight relationship with AdvoCare. Will he just be driving in those sponsored races?

STEVE NEWMARK: “We’re still in the process of working through which races. Our goal is to have Trevor continue to grow and mature on the track, which as you know he’s one of the highest character guys in the garage and we’re proud of having him as part of our family. He will continue to be in the car and we hope that Matt’s assistance with all of this will elevate not only Trevor’s performance, Ricky’s performance, but we haven’t delineated all of the different races and who will be in what race.

“We’ve obviously been in contact with our partners and with Trevor and we have an open dialogue about how all of that will sort out, and we’ll try to do it in a way that gives us the best opportunity to excel on the track.  So we’ll look at different races, different tracks, where we need help and where we can probably utilize Matt’s skillset the best.”

QUESTION: What happens if Trevor wins in Talladega this weekend? Would you go to a third car?

STEVE NEWMARK: “That’s a problem that we hope we have after this weekend.  Obviously, our cars have been really good. We won last year at this race with the No. 17, so we would be thrilled if either the No. 6 or the No. 17 wins the race.  That would be a great problem to be facing on Sunday.”

QUESTION: Mark, have you given Matt any tips on hurdles he might be facing by not running fulltime?

MARK MARTIN: “No, I haven’t.  Matt is not someone who would need any tips from me.  That’s why he’s my favorite driver. If he did, he knows my phone number.  He usually texts, though, but I would say he doesn’t need that. We’re talking about Matt Kenseth here.”

JACK ROUSH: “If you’re asking why is Mark here and why is he so revered in our history and why is Matt here?  They were the two best guys at really finding the speed in their cars. These stock cars are not very easy to drive and they do three or four things that they do every lap that you really want to fix and there are one or two of them that you can address and find speed in the car, and if you address the others you don’t.

“These are the best two guys that I’ve had of the 50 drivers who we’ve worked with in NASCAR at finding speed in the cars _ both in making recommendations to the team for hardware changes and for the things they face behind the steering wheel to make the right choices for the things they brought to the attention of the crew chief.”

QUESTION: Matt, how much do you want to win races and show people what they passed up?

MATT KENSETH: “I feel like I can be a real asset in a lot of different ways besides just driving. I hope that turns out to be true, so it’s as much about that as it is driving the race cars. I’m really competitive, obviously, with whatever I do and if I’m not in the car, there’s nothing I want more than Ricky or Trevor to be out there running up front and improving and doing better and working hard at it and hopefully being successful.”

QUESTION: Jack, is this a move you feel you needed to make to win races soon, or a move to evaluate your cars?

JACK ROUSH: “It’s all of that. It’s a chance to look at our cars and find out if there’s something glaring that Matt will see from his experience, which would be in line with what Mark’s impression would be if he were in the cars as well. I’m anxious to have that impression, but we’re also anxious to start building back on the 33 races that Matt’s won in Xfinity as well as Cup.  Whether there’s another championship in there for Matt with Roush Fenway, that remains to be seen.  That’s in years two or three out if there is a year two or three for Matt in the car. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”

QUESTION: Matt, do you feel like you’ve earned this opportunity to return?

MATT KENSETH: “I don’t really know how to answer that question exactly. I feel like as long as I’ve been in this sport I’ve never really been totally comfortable, I guess, or comfortable with your job or however you want to look at it.  I think everybody, every driver, every personality, there’s something different I think that makes them unique or drives them or makes them successful.  For me, it’s just never being comfortable, never feeling like I’m near good enough and I need to be doing better and figuring out what you can do better and moving on from there.

“That might be a better question for those guys whether you’ve ‘earned it.’ I don’t know if you necessarily earned it, but certainly I go out every week and do my very best from Monday through Sunday and that’s something that never changes with me. I guess I decided to go do this, we had some conversations and I really had to put a lot of thought into it because I don’t think I’ve ever been happier and more content than the last six months, honestly. 

So to go back, and I know how I operate. I’m not gonna go just ride around or just show up on Sunday and race. I’m gonna put all of my effort into this and a lot of time into this, so I had to make sure I was ready to go do that, which I am, so I’m looking forward to getting back and seeing what kind of impact I can make.”

QUESTION: Matt, what was the timetable for this deal to come together?

MATT KENSETH: “We’ve been talking for a little while and trying to get all of the details worked out, and as Steve alluded to we’re still kind of working out some details going forward. I have not spoken to Trevor yet. I was gonna give that a week or so to settle down.  My hope is that after a few days when things kind of shake out, my hope is we can get together face-to-face, sooner-than-later, hopefully next week and sit and have a long talk because I really feel like there are a lot of things I could probably help him with.

“My hope is that he embraces that and turns this into something to drive him and he can get better, but I have not had that conversation with him yet. Trying to keep this under wraps, did pretty good until the day before, whenever it was. Ricky, I touched base with Ricky for a little bit and we’re planning on meeting the first thing next week as well.”

QUESTION: Mark, the blue Ford Fusion here looks a lot like your old car. What does it mean to see the No. 6 looking like that?

MARK MARTIN: “I can’t tell you what I means to me. I have been so excited, but I don’t know that I can describe to you what it means to me to look at that car and knowing that my favorite driver of all-time is gonna be in that car part-time. It is going to be working hard to improve the performance of Roush Racing. I have a lot sweat-equity and pride in this organization. After all, it was Jack Roush and all the great people that built that organization brick-by-brick that enabled me to become a part of this amazing Hall of Fame here. I don’t have the words to articulate what it means to me and what they mean to me and what that organization means to me. It’s a really exciting time for me.”

QUESTION: Steve, how has Trevor taken the news?

STEVE NEWMARK: “I think he reacted just the way any of us would. He’s a fierce competitor. He wants to be in the car every week _ Cup, Xfinity, he will drive anything.  We continue to have a dialogue and I think he’ll see this as an opportunity to continue to excel, but there’s no doubt that when we had the dialogue about it that his first reaction was, ‘I want to be in the car every week.’  In fact, we wouldn’t want it any other way. If we had a driver who just kind of acquiesced, that would be an inherent problem in itself.”

QUESTION: Matt, how is your competitive spirit? We know you’ve been to a lot of gymnastics meets lately, right?

MATT KENSETH:  “My competitive spirit has been really good. Yes, the kids do a lot of gymnastics and I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in lobbies at the gym and going to several gymnastics meets, so my competitive spirit is good. My 4-year-old loves to play games, so I’m constantly _ even when I win she tells me I lost, which I guess that runs in the family as well _ so my competitive spirit is good. I certainly have not lost any of that.

 I think if there’s anything you miss from racing is the competition, going out there and knowing you’re racing against the best stock car drivers anywhere and the best race teams, crew chiefs and engineers and trying to figure out how to beat them.  So, certainly, that’s always the part you miss the most.

“There are certain things you miss. There are probably a couple things you don’t, but there are certainly a lot more things you miss than you don’t. Competing has always been the best part. Mark can tell you that. The best part of the weekend is when you start the engine on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon and you get to roll off and go race these guys as hard as you can for four hours or whatever it is.”

QUESTION: Matt, did you have a post-driving career in mind when you accepted this opportunity?

MATT KENSETH: “Certainly that came up in some of the discussions, for sure.  Like I said, as much as just the driving part the rest of it interests me. I haven’t been home long enough to be bored or like dying to go do something; I’ve been really busy at home actually. The last six months went by faster than I think any six months of my life. It’s really busy, honestly, but also I think there’s part of me that misses being part of something, especially when you’ve been a competitor your whole life.

“Obviously, you’re not gonna drive forever, so I think the part of still being part of something competitive and trying to make something better and trying to figure out how to do it better than the next guy and go beat everybody is still there, whether you’re in the car or whether you’re not.  Not being in there every week will certainly be different. It’s something I’ve never done before, so I can’t really tell you what it’s gonna be like probably until I do it for a while.”

QUESTION: Matt, have you been watching Cup races on TV this season?

MATT KENSETH: “I watched races, yes. I probably watched more closely the last few weeks than I did maybe the first few weeks, but the last few weeks as this certainly came together I’ve been a little more involved in reading through some notes and looking through some data and watching races a little closer and kind of seeing what’s going on here.”

QUESTION: So what did it feel like just watching the races?

 

MATT KENSETH: “It’s fine. It’s not like I turned the TV on for the Daytona 500 and it was just killing me I wasn’t in the car. It really wasn’t like that at all. It’s a little different watching it, but I have watched all the races for years.  You always go through it and I would always re-watch film before the next week to see what I can learn, try to pick up some things that maybe I wasn’t thinking about or whatever, trying to make yourself better for the next week.  So I can’t say it was really necessarily a lot different than except for I wasn’t really taking notes.”

QUESTION: Mark, why is Matt your favorite driver?

MARK MARTIN: “That’s not a hard one to answer. I want to say that Jeff Burton is probably the guy I have the most respect for ever as far as race car drivers go. He helped more than anyone ever and he is really special to me, but what I like about Matt is a little bit different than that. I met with Matt at the driver’s meeting at Talladega and had a conversation with him for 30 minutes and knew right then that he was the guy. I had heard and knew what he had been doing in Wisconsin, but I knew. 

All I can say is I’m dumber than hell, and I can’t explain a lot of different things, but when I met Arlene Martin, I knew. And we beat a lot of odds.  And that’s how I felt about him. It was just different. I knew he was the right guy.  Matt is definitely the right guy for the job.  He knows about race cars.  He knew about race cars then.  He won races in different cars against people that I knew were hard to beat, and that told me that there wasn’t a crew chief that made Matt fast and made Matt win.  He knew race cars.  He’s enough old-school to be able to bring that to the table and yet enough new-school to be able to adapt.

“Racing has changed all through the years and he’s been able to adapt to the simulation era and all this technology era.  How I knew that?  I don’t know.  Maybe I just got lucky, but I knew that he was that kind of driver _ the kind of driver that could do it all and adapt and change through it all. I don’t know why that is. I like his personality and the way he approaches things.  He, like Jeff Burton, are smarter than me so I always liked being around them because if I just kept my mouth shut, I’d learn something.”

JACK ROUSH: “The other thing about Mark and Matt is they don’t care who they yell at to get what they want. I’ve been taken to the woodshed with both of them at different times and it didn’t turn out in my favor.”

QUESTION: Matt, what are your biggest concerns have missed the early portion of the season before getting back in a race car?

MATT KENSETH: “I don’t necessarily know about missing races as the biggest challenge. I think even if it was the start of the season the biggest challenges for me are gonna be that there is no testing, so you’re gonna hit Kansas with an hour-and-a-half of practice or whatever and get ready to qualify in a car that I’ve never been in with a crew chief (Matt Puccia) that I’ve worked with a little bit, but not a lot.  Something just totally different, so I think that will be the biggest challenge.

“I really think the few extra months off, I really don’t feel like it’s gonna be a big deal. Of course, I could be wrong, but I think you’ll get on the track for 10 or 15 minutes and get out there and get re-acclimated, so I’m not really worried about that part. I guess the biggest thing is just not being in the car and getting all the little things right, making sure you’re comfortable and knowing how you’re gonna relay your crew chief information, how you adjust and how you talk. Not working together, a lot of that stuff is a learning process that takes a little bit of time, so that’s probably the only concern I guess you have or the only part where you feel like maybe you’re behind at first. But I don’t really suspect it will take very long.”

MARK MARTIN: “I think that there is zero rust, but slipping into something that’s completely new, like Matt said, the fit of everything and adjusting to where everything is in these cars, which is the last cars that he drove, and those kind of things. And then the other part of it is he won’t have the opportunity to tailor anything about the race car going forward. In other words, every single race that you do, and you come back and go through all that, is an opportunity for the whole organization to address specific issues and think through logically how can we make this particular part of the car better because as Jack said before, there are a number of things on the car you can work on, but you can only fix so many things, especially at one time.

I think that having Matt in the race car will send them directly to areas that will bear fruit pretty quickly as they address those, and not spend a lot of time trying to address some of the ones that might not ever bear fruit because, after all, that’s what puts teams ahead of other teams. It’s not because one team works that much harder than the other _ they all work hard _ it’s just which ones work on the things that bear fruit are the ones that migrate to the front.”

QUESTION: Matt, who will be your spotter and will you be at the track every week when you’re not driving the car?

MATT KENSETH: “The first one, I’m not sure that’s gonna be any different than what it is now. I believe Roman Pemberton is spotting for him, so I’m not sure that’s gonna be any different.

 As far as being at the racetrack every week, that’s not a discussion we’ve had. I don’t anticipate being at the racetrack every week when I’m not racing. I anticipate being there probably some of the time. I anticipate being in all the meetings whether I’m driving or not and getting all of that organized and figuring out how I can help with some of that stuff, not that it’s not organized, but organize it where I can be there too and be with Trevor and Ricky for the weekends I’m not in the car and try to see what they’re going through and see if there are some ways I can help.”

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 27 2018
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