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Matt Kenseth Is Back In A Cup Car, But Why?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 11 2018

Matt Matt Kenseth was back on the track in Kansas Friday in a new car in a new/old team. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Jim Fluharty)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Roush Fenway Racing’s Matt Kenseth had an answer ready to roll when he was asked Friday why he’s excited to be back behind the wheel of a NASCAR Cup car at this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Because of competition and fans, the 46-year-old Wisconsinite, who got the boot from Joe Gibbs Racing last year and who is making his first start this year, said.

But perhaps a more interesting question surrounding Kenseth’s return to the Roush organization – the team which, back in 2000, gave Kenseth his first full-time job – is: Why, in an era in which every business from race teams to major corporations are dumping expensive proven talent in favor of unproven lightly paid youth, would Roush invite Kenseth back into one of its cockpits?

Is Roush Fenway making a move out of desperation? Or is it ahead of the game?

The former answer would appear to have the strongest legs.

Roush Racing has fallen fast and far. In the 2-oughts, Roush Racing was glam. It was home to such high-profile drivers as Hall of Famer Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray and Kenseth.

It was Ford Racing’s bell cow team. Doug Yates was producing big horsepower in its cars. In the years between 1999 and 1012, Roush cars won 89 races. In 2003 and 2004, Kenseth and Busch gave Roush Racing back-to-back Cup championships. In 2011, Edwards tied for the championship points lead but lost it to Tony Stewart based on a tiebreaker.

But the last three years have seen the team bounce back down the ladder. There have been just two victories in 300 starts.

Once a five-car powerhouse, the team has run as a two-car operation in 2017 and 2018.

Big name drivers have been replaced by, well, a driver with a long name, at least, – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – and a driver who won the Daytona 500 for the Wood Brothers in 2011 and then quickly faded from sight – Trevor Bayne.

Roush Fenway’s situation as the face of Ford has deteriorated to being the Detroit marque’s hind third.

Last month, RFR announced the re-hiring of Kenseth. He would play tag team with Bayne in the No. 6 car – much to Bayne’s chagrin. The plan has been to run Kenseth at Kansas on Saturday night and then four more. That schedule could be altered.

The reasons for the re-hiring? According to Roush Fenway president Steve Newmark; leadership, maturity and stability.

“We look at Matt as the best in the business at helping to assess and diagnose and figure out how to make cars better,” Newmark said.

“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 (the) Xfinity (Series).”

Perhaps. But these days, there are a fair number of unemployed formerly great wheelmen who are simply rusting away and could be as good or, perhaps, better than Kenseth at making cars go fast. Ditto for crew chiefs and car chiefs.

Despite a less-than-engaging personality, Kenseth had a solid base of fans. It was a base that released a collective moan when its guy got the boot from Gibbs. The re-hiring of Kenseth by Roush has gotten good reviews among veterans not named Bayne in the garages.

Roush Fenway will never be able to get the band back together but bringing one member back onto the stage for a set or two just may be a hit with fans and, most importantly, potential sponsors.

Desperate measures produce disparate results. The bet is there are lots of sets of crossed fingers at RFR.

Then there is the possibility that Roush is ahead of the game in bringing back the steady Kenseth.

To this point of things, the youth movement of the last two seasons in Cup has flopped and hard.

Chase Elliott has shown strength but in 88 starts, he has yet to close a deal in a car that won four Cup championships. He sits 15th in points.

Rookie Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron is 17th in points and has just one top-10 finish.

Over at JGR, for whom Kenseth drove until being let go last year, the young cut-rates are struggling like crazy. Erik Jones is 13th in points with one top-five finish in Kenseth’s old No. 20 Toyota. Teammate Daniel Suarez is 20th with one top-five.

Elliott is being touted as the driver most likely to succeed Dale Earnhardt Jr. as NASCAR’s biggest fan favorite. If he does, it will be because he starts winning races like crazy because he sure doesn’t have Junior charisma. Ditto for the other young phenoms.

Defending Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. was asked why veteran drivers have been so dominant this season – Kevin Harvick has four wins in 11 races, Kyle Busch three and Truex, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer one each.

“Experienced teams and experience behind the wheel,” Truex said. “These cars aren’t driving very good. They change throughout the weekend quite a bit. Times when you need to really think about experience. In what ways is this track going to go? These cars are so sensitive to weather changes and pace changes and things like that. I think having that experience and not freaking out saying ok, you know, I have to be tight in this practice to be good in the race or I have to be loose here to be good in the race. That’s the experience that’s hard to get. It’s hard to have that confidence when maybe you practice when you’re two or three tenths off because you’re fighting off a nail-handling car but if you try to fix it now, it’s going to hurt you later. Those are kind of times when experience really plays in your hands.”

Perhaps Newmark has seen enough of under achieving in the youth movement. Perhaps he has come to conclusion that experience and maturity have a place on a race team. Perhaps he has woken up to the fact that sometimes, you get what you pay for.

Or, perhaps Wyndham Rewards, which will be Kenseth’s primary sponsor in all his races this year, called the shot.

Whatever. Kenseth is back and he’s brought three things.

First, optimism.

“I feel good about the direction that Roush Fenway Racing has taken the last couple years,” he said Friday in Kansas. “Certainly, all the Fords are very competitive this year. The 17 [Stenhouse] has shown a lot of speed on and off.  You don’t see it necessarily in all the finishes, but certainly they’ve been better, so, like I said, I feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”

Second, his refusal to be baited into hyperbole during interviews.

“I don’t have any expectations necessarily for this weekend,” Kenseth said. “I think the goals and expectations will probably continue to adjust once I get through this week and kind of see where we’re at and evaluate from there.”

Third, he’s got the crowd at The Keystone Grill on Main St. in Cambridge, Wis. all jacked up.

###

Veteran driver Matt Kenseth met with the media Friday at Kansas Speedway, site of this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race.

The following is a complete transcript of that press conference:

HOW SPECIAL IS IT FOR YOU TO BE BACK WITH ROUSH FENWAY? “The last few weeks have been fun. Obviously, just trying to get a little bit caught up an reacclimated there with the system and the people and what’s changed and that kind of thing, and been anxious about today and getting back in the car. I’m hoping everybody can get through tech and we can get on track in time. There’s not a lot of practice today, so I’m pretty anxious about getting in the car and seeing where we’re at and what my comfort level is, where we are on speed and what we’ve got to work on for tomorrow, that type of thing, so I’m just ready to get going.”

DOES THIS FEEL LIKE THE PERFECT PLACE FOR YOU TO COME BACK? “Yeah, actually the last time here they told me I couldn’t race anymore and we had to load up last fall, I think. The last time I was here was not a very good emotion. That was our last race in the Playoffs last year, but it is a fun track. It is fairly straightforward. It’s been a great track since the repave and the banking changing, so it’s a good track, especially for an intermediate side and I do look forward to that.”

SOMEBODY JUST ASKED ON TWITTER WHY WOULD YOU GO TO ROUSH IF YOU DIDN’T THINK YOU COULD BE COMPEITIVE AND MY RESPONSE WAS, ‘I DON’T THINK YOU WOULD HAVE COME OFF THE SIDELINES IF YOU DIDN”T THINK YOU COULD BE COMPETITIVE.’ “Somebody on Twitter reading minds again? I never said I didn’t think I could be competitive. If I didn’t, I certainly wouldn’t be here. I feel good about the direction that Roush Fenway Racing has taken the last couple years. Certainly, all the Fords are very competitive this year. The 17 has shown a lot of speed on and off. You don’t see it necessarily in all the finishes, but certainly they’ve been better, so, like I said, I feel like we’re headed in the right direction. I don’t have any expectations necessarily for this weekend. I think the goals and expectations will probably continue to adjust once I get through this week and kind of see where we’re at and evaluate from there.”

FOR CLARIFICATION YOUR WYNDHAM ANNOUNCEMENT AS FAR AS WHAT RACES WYNDHAM WOULD SPONSOR CAME OUT YESTERDAY. I’VE HEARD YOU SAY YOU WERE GONNA BE IN THE NEXT FIVE RACES. WHAT DOES YOUR SCHEDULE LOOK LIKE? HAVE YOU BEEN GIVEN A NUMBER OF HOW MANY YOU WILL RUN? “I’m doing the next five in a row plus all of the Wyndham races that they announced. There’s more on top of that. They didn’t want to announce the entire schedule yet that we were running, but those are the ones that we can talk about right now and the rest of it we’re still kind of working on.”

WHAT DOES A VETERAN DRIVER LIKE YOURSELF DO FROM A ROUTINE STANDPOINT TO GET BACK ON THE TRACK? “Honestly, not much with the testing policies and all that, so I haven’t been in a car at all since Homestead last year. So, really, not much. Besides all the mental prep that you can do with notes and film and things like that, but as far as the driving, really nothing. My training has been the same or probably more than last year because I’ve had more time, so physically there’s nothing really different – just kind of getting the mental stuff ready – but didn’t get a chance to get in the car at all. I was hoping I could get in a car and at least drive one a little bit and get acclimated with their systems and kind of the way they do things, but that’s what I’m looking forward to here in about an hour or so I guess.”

WHAT ARE YOUR GENERAL EXPECTATIONS FOR THE WEEKEND? “I don’t have any expectations for the weekend, to be honest with you, because I just don’t know. I haven’t been in the car yet and I don’t know how fast we’ll get up to speed. What are the things we’re gonna fight, that type of thing, so I don’t really know. I came into this weekend pretty much with no expectations, just kind of open-minded and take it one practice at a time, one session at a time, that type of thing, and go from there.”

WHAT DID YOU MISS MOST DURING THIS HIATUS AND WHAT DID YOU APPRECIATE THE MOST? “I would say the fans and the competition. The thing you miss the most is always the competition. That’s why we all started racing on Friday and Saturday nights with a couple hundred people in the stands against all the rest of the drivers is because you like to compete. I think when you’re not competing, if there’s one thing you could pick out, that’s probably the part you miss the most. As far as how the last six months have been, they’ve been great honestly. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better period in my life, so that’s been really good.”

SO YOU’VE BEEN RACING LOCALLY IN WISCONSIN AT LOCAL TRACKS? “No.”

I THOUGHT YOU JUST SAID THAT? “Yeah, 25-30 years ago. I was talking more like when you first started racing. That’s kind of what you started for is because you’re competitive and you want to compete. I think in your whole career, in any professional sport, I think that’s the one constant is you love to compete no matter what level it’s at, so not competing in anything in the last six months – if I had to pick one thing I missed about it, that would be it.”

WHAT’S YOUR LONG-TERM GOAL? “Professionally, I don’t know that I have a long-term goal. As far as the rest of it, I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anybody either. Short-term, I hope to help the organization. That’s kind of why Jack and I decided to do this. They needed to get their performance up. He’s hoping I can help with that. I’m hoping I can help with that. It’s yet to be seen. I haven’t been on the race track yet, so I’m not really thinking very far out at the moment to be honest with you. I’m just trying to concentrate on this and do the best we can this weekend and kind of evaluate and see where we’re at and try to do better next week and so on and so forth.”

HOW WILL YOU ENTER THIS PRACTICE? “It’s a two-day schedule, so it’s different. All you get is two 50-minute practices today, so I’m gonna assume that most people are going to work on race trim most of the time. We’re no different, but even if it was a normal Friday, Saturday, Sunday schedule, we would probably run some race laps just because I haven’t been in one of these cars for a while. I haven’t been in a Roush car for a long while, so just kind of get acclimated and hopefully get up to speed, probably take a few laps to kind of get comfortable and do all that and hopefully work on qualifying later this afternoon.”

DO YOU ANTICIPATE ANY ADJUSTMENT PERIOD? “I think most of that comes pretty natural. If you can’t tell where that is anymore, then you’re probably in a fair amount of trouble. I’m sure it’s going to take a little bit of time, but I’m talking minutes and not hours to kind of get readjusted to everything and make sure everything fits. You might have to come in a couple times to adjust a few things, but I think as far as getting up to speed of the track I’m not extremely concerned about having six months off. I remember Kyle Busch had about six months off and he came back pretty strong a few years ago. I’m not extremely concerned about that.”

YOUR PHYSICAL FITNESS HAS CONTINUED DURING THIS PERIOD. IS THAT JUST PART OF YOUR LIFESTYLE OR WAS IT IN CASE A SITUATION LIKE THIS CAME UP? “I think for me, especially as you get older, you think a little bit more about your health and staying in shape and eating and exercising. I enjoy training. I love running with Katie. I enjoyed doing that half marathon last fall. I enjoy riding my bike. It’s not quite as enjoyable when you’re doing a lot of miles by yourself, but I’ve been trying to get back in shape to the assault on Mt. Mitchell on Monday, so that was the main reason my miles have been up and trying to get ready for that. As far as trying to stay in shape for this, I don’t know that would be any different. I’ve probably been training maybe a little bit more not going to the track every week, so I’ve had a little bit extra time. I really felt like something like this was gonna happen this year and I was probably gonna do some racing this year, but I didn’t know if or when that was gonna pop up. Certainly, you try to stay in physical and mental shape and pay some attention and be ready for it just in case.”

IS IT FAIR TO SAY YOU’RE IN THE BEST SHAPE YOU’VE EVER BEEN IN? “I don’t know. Definitely the last three or four years I’ve probably been in better physical shape than I’ve ever been in, but if you would have trained like this when you’re in your twenties or thirties you’d be in better shape than you are today, but, yeah, I feel good.”

HAVE YOU WATCHED THE RACES ON TV AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO MAYBE GO OUT ON YOUR OWN TERMS? “I have not been glued to the TV. Certainly the last few weeks when I knew I was doing this I’ve watched more and read more competition-related stuff than I did earlier in the year. Earlier in the year, not as much but honestly it was pretty busy at our house. The kids go to school all week and we have Saturdays and Sundays off, probably spend more time running around with them and spending time with them more so than watching the TV, but I’ve certainly paid attention and the last few weeks I’ve watched more of it than I did before that.”

WHAT ABOUT GOING OUT ON YOUR OWN TERMS? “I haven’t even given that a thought, to be honest with you. That part doesn’t really matter to me, I guess.”

WHAT ABOUT THE DIGITIAL DASH AND THINGS INSIDE THE CAR YOU’VE BEEN WORKING ON. IS THAT DIFFERENT? “I haven’t been on the race track yet, but that’s all stuff you can kind of set up at the shop and I basically went through all of that and got what I thought I was comfortable with and basically where I’ve been before with it all. Everything seems like it’s gonna fit pretty similar. You never know 100 percent for sure until you get on the track and run some laps, but that seems like it’s all pretty close and buttoned up.”

WHAT DO YOU LIKE ON THE DASH? “Just whatever information they want and a little bit of information I want. I’ve done it pretty much the same since they came out with it.”

 

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 11 2018
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