Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will make the transition to Sprint Cup full time in 2013 with the shock news that Matt Kenseth will leave Roush-Fenway Racing at the end of the season. Kenseth, who won the 2003 Sprint Cup and two Daytona 500s with the team, currently leads the points and looks certain to make the Chase. As such, the announcement that he will leave the squad with which he has spent his entire career, has come as somewhat of a surprise.
Team-owner Jack Roush paid tribute to Kenseth, the longest-serving driver in the history of his team.
“Of course, I’d like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service,” Roush said. “Matt has been an integral part of this organisation for well over a decade, and we are extremely appreciative of his accomplishments and contributions to the team. We will always consider him a part of the Roush Fenway family.
“We’re fortunate that we were able to tap into Matt’s potential and bring him on board many years ago, and I’m proud that together we were able to combine the tools and the resources of Roush Fenway with his talent and determination to forge a partnership that yielded a championship at the Cup level and all of his 22 Cup victories, including two Daytona 500 wins.”
“All of us at Ford are certainly disappointed to hear that Matt will be leaving, and he will be certainly missed by us and the fans,” Ford Racing director Jamie Allison added. “We are thankful for Matt’s winning efforts and championship-caliber success with the Roush and Ford racing programs these past 16 years, both on and off the track. We will focus on this year and look forward to more success on the track in his No. 17 Ford Fusion this season.”
Roush was quick to counter suggestions that Kenseth's planned departure would affect his focus on the 2012 championship and that, as seen with Darian Grubb last year, after it was announced that he would not crew-chief Tony Stewart in 2012, the knowledge that he will be leaving the team will only be cause for extra motivation.
“The #17 is positioned extremely well this season, and I’m committed to providing the team the best resources to continue their run for the 2012 championship. I have no doubt that Matt will do his part,” Roush said.
The news means that reigning Nationwide Series champion Stenhouse will graduate to Cup full time with Roush, after toe in the water outings in last years Coke 600 and this years Daytona 500. Stenhouse was almost dropped by Roush after an error-strewn start to 2010, but went on to win Rookie of the Year, and took the title last year with two wins.
“Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has more than proved his abilities on the race track,” said Roush. “We feel that he is not only a key piece of our team's future, but a key piece of the future of the sport. Roush Fenway is an organization with a wonderful past and present, as well as an extremely promising future, and I can't think of a better candidate than Ricky to usher in the next era of success for the team.”
While the reasons for Kenseth's departure are as yet unclear, economic factors have yet to be ruled out, RFR having certainly been hit harder than most by the economic downturn. Around 80% of the team's sponsorship contracts came up for renewal last year, and with only a few resigning, David Ragan's #6 team had to be shut down, while the funds to run Trevor Bayne's Nationwide Series car also ran out. Despite the lucrative signing of Best Buy, Kenseth's flagship #17 team has also ran without external sponsorship this year. It is therefore not inconceivable that the two parted ways due to an inability to reach a mutually favourable financial settlement: Stenhouse would certainly provide a cheaper alternative for Roush.
It is rumoured that Kenseth will join Joe Gibbs Racing, either as a replacement for Joey Logano in the #20 or in a fourth, as yet unannounced car, alongside Logano, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Logano is out of a contract at the end of the year, however his sudden upswing in form, culminating in a Cup win at Pocono and five Nationwide Series wins, means he is likely to remain on the team. JGR also have the Brian Scott, Ryan Truex, the highly marketable Darrell Wallace Jr. and road-racing specialist Michael McDowell on its books, so accommodating Kenseth may well come at their expense.
“Obviously everyone in the sport likes Matt. On the track. Off the track. A good fit,” said Gibbs on Wednesday. “But from our standpoint at JGR, we’re kind of focused on this year, here and now, and I think really with Kyle, with Denny and with Joey, we want those guys all with us for a long period of time, too.”
“Our goal really is for Joey to be a part of JGR forever,” he said. “That’s kind of what we’re kind of working on, and really until you have stuff laid out – [and can say] ‘here’s the plan’ – it’s not really worth talking about. But that’s our hope.”
Kenseth responded to the announcement using his Twitter account, but did not confirm the JGR rumours. There is also a possibility that he could join Stewart-Haas Racing, with Ryan Newman a free agent, or even replace AJ Allmendinger at Team Penske.
“I’m very thankful to Jack Roush for the opportunities he’s given me over the past 14 years. Together we have enjoyed a lot of success,” Kenseth wrote. “And as a team we are committed as ever to the remainder of the 2012 season and chasing a 3rd sprint cup title for Jack and RFR.”
Stenhouse's graduation to Cup has led to further speculation that Trevor Bayne will take the vacant seat in the Nationwide Series next year. Bayne, a Roush-contracted junior driver, who remarkably won the Daytona 500 last year in only his second start, has found opportunities limited ever since, with insufficient budget to complete a full season in either Cup or Nationwide, despite also managing to win at Texas last fall. Roush has come under fire for not releasing Bayne to fill in for other drivers, most recently when Kurt Busch was banned from competing at Pocono, and Bayne's loyal legion of fans are gradually loosing patience. Giving Bayne a full-season in a competitive car next season may go some way to redressing the situation, however no mention of the youngster was made in today's press releases.