Kenseth departure from Roush reactions

Roush Fenway Racing officially announced Tuesday that current points leader and 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth will leave the organization at the conclusion of the season, and will be replaced in the No. 17 Ford by defending NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

Below, SPEED analyst and former Roush Fenway Racing crew chief Jeff Hammond offers his perspective on this situation and its ramifications not only within Kenseth’s team but throughout the sport.

Q: Do you think the fact Kenseth is leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season will be a distraction in his title run this year?

“The No. 17 is a veteran team led by Jimmy Fennig, and I don’t expect Jimmy to do anything but produce his absolute best. Having worked for Jack Roush, I know he won’t slight the No. 17 team at all with regard to what they need, and given the fact Matt has a lot of respect not only for his organization but for his fans, I don’t think we’ll see any ‘quit’ in this team at all. Them losing focus isn’t a factor in my book and I think they’ll be there until the end. It may be difficult, but they’ll keep focus and move on. Let’s roll back the hands of time to a year ago, and although he didn’t end up leaving for greener pastures, there was quite a bit of talk about Carl Edwards leaving Roush. He was leading the points at the time, too, and although he lost the championship, they were in the hunt and went down swinging right into the very last race."

–Jeff Hammond, SPEED analyst and former Roush Fenway Racing crew chief

Q: Does Kenseth leaving signal any financial concerns within RFR, which struggled to capitalize on Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 win and wasn’t able to secure sponsorship for a fourth Cup car?

“Singling out Roush Fenway Racing would be irresponsible because there are very few Cup cars with consistent sponsorship for the year. Here we have a former champion and a two-time Daytona 500 winner who is having a hard time getting sponsors to spend the money to fully fund his team.

“This just heightens what is going on in the country as a whole because the economy is driving this issue – not the sport. Despite some people’s contention the economy is recovering, it remains weak when it comes to our sport. We still have some decline in attendance and the majority of teams are rounding out their sponsorship needs with several sponsors. Gone are the days of one big sponsor covering the entire year. We still have a long way to go to completely recover and regain the footing we had five or six years ago."

–Jeff Hammond, SPEED analyst and former RFR crew chief

Q: It appears Silly Season now is in full swing with Matt Kenseth the first domino to officially fall. How does this affect other drivers whose names have been in the rumor mill?

“This announcement once again starts the talk and everyone wondering where all these drivers will go next year. It will be interesting because I think there is a question mark about who will be in the No. 55 next year fulltime or whether Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and Michael Waltrip will continue to split that ride. Joey Logano’s safety at Joe Gibbs Racing continues to be debated, and Ryan Newman is a free agent. Don’t forget Martin Truex, Jr., either. There are a lot of unknowns at the moment and this is just the beginning. It’s a wild beginning because I wouldn’t ever have believed a 14-year veteran of Roush, who just won the Daytona 500 and is leading the points, would be out looking for another job next year. For a driver of Kenseth’s caliber to announce his departure this early in the season really grabs our attention. It also shows just how much of a major-league sport NASCAR really is. It’s like a LeBron James situation where he has been with a team for so long and has been a cornerstone of the organization. His departure rattles the whole sport and makes everyone wonder if he’ll end up somewhere where he will perform even better and possibly win even more championships."

–Jeff Hammond, SPEED analyst and former RFR crew chief

Former crew chief Larry McReynolds, NASCAR analyst for both FOX & SPEED, talked about the decision and how he thinks it will impact the team going forward. Here is what he had to say…

SPEED: What’s your initial reaction to the move?

McReynolds: I’m surprised on one hand because of the past success that Matt Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing have shared, including being the current point’s leader. But on the other, I’m not at all. I think Matt went through the same process that Carl Edwards did just before he signed back with RFR, thinking that he might be able to go to a Joe Gibbs Racing and dominate by running off between eight to 11 wins in a season.

SPEED: What do you think about Stenhouse, Jr. moving up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series?

McReynolds: Obviously, as we look at up-and-coming talent that’s not in the Sprint Cup Series right now, I would have to say the name at the top of that chart would be Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. I think he has a couple of Sprint Cup Series starts, he ran the Daytona 500 for Roush Fenway, but when I go back to his first start a little over a year ago for Wood Brothers Racing – the 21 team at the Coke 600 in Charlotte when Trevor Bayne was sick – I was very impressed with what he did that entire race weekend. To make your first start in the Coke 600, with a team that runs a limited schedule, he qualified in the top 10 (ninth) and he finished 11th, (ever after) he got into the wall two or three times along the way of that 600-mile race.

I get the feeling that both parties think this 13-plus year relationship, even with leading the points right now, has gotten stale. But it is also pretty evident to me that both parties had something else in the works. Obviously Roush Fenway did because they have already made the announcement and I think Matt Kenseth has, or is close to having, something in place as well.

SPEED: How does this impact the team in their pursuit of a championship for 2012?

McReynolds: Everybody in that organization is human, so it’s hard to say it won’t have some impact. I’m going to give an exception, now, nothing the magnitude of the driver leaving, but let’s go back to the end of last year. I think it was known that (Tony Stewart’s crew chief in 2011) Darian Grubb (was leaving) probably before The Chase even started, and it was officially announced halfway through The Chase, but it did not take away from their efforts to win that championship.

Now that was the crew chief. Do I think that Matt Kenseth, (crew chief) Jimmy Fennig, Roush Fenway Racing and the 17 team can win this championship? Absolutely, I still think they have to win more races, but I said that two or three weeks ago. Their teammate from last year Carl Edwards is a pretty good measuring stick in that being consistent, but just winning one race is not going to win you the championship. Only they can control this. It’s in the palm of their hand. If it becomes a distraction, they won’t win it. I think Matt can and will, Jimmy can and will, but only time will truly tell.

SPEED: What do you think about Roush Fenway’s position financially based on this move?

McReynolds: This is just opinion and analysis, but I think Jack Roush – a lot like Joe Gibbs four years ago when he slid Joey Logano down into the seat of that 20 car that Tony Stewart had left – is very high on Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., and rightly so. Look at what the kid has accomplished in the last year and a half. The drivers that are going to be available next year that could possible go into that 17 car – and that are given names – you kind of know what you get. There’s a reason they are available.

I think Jack Roush is no different from Joe Gibbs four years ago and says, ‘I don’t really know where I’m going to be with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., but I’m willing to roll the dice and see.’ Who knows? This kid could be the next Jimmie Johnson. He’s obviously had a lot more success in the Nationwide Series than even Jimmie Johnson did. Nobody knows that. Not even Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. knows that. I applaud Jack for not just circulating the same body of drivers through the system back and forth. Certainly, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. will come at a smaller price and let’s face it; the 17 team has struggled with sponsorship for the last year or so.

SPEED: Are there any similarities between this and Mark Martin’s departure?

McReynolds: I don’t think so. I think when Mark left there, he truly didn’t have anything in the works, and I think Mark was truly looking for a limited schedule that Roush Fenway Racing could not give him. That’s not what Matt Kenseth is looking for, to my knowledge.

“I suspect Kenseth leaving will have absolutely zero impact on his or the team’s efforts to win the championship. When you’ve been together as long as Kenseth and Roush have, you learn each other’s good and bad points. He and Roush both are racers and racers are there for one thing – to win – and this will not impact their bid to win the championship.

“I think it’s safe to assume that breaking up a marriage that has lasted as long as this one probably is a reflection of how hard the economy has hit this sport. The underlying factor at work here has to be sponsorship at some level and not friction between the driver and owner.

“However, in the long run, this will be good for Roush because he’s putting a young, rising star in the seat. Short-term, it’s not good to lose a driver of Kenseth’s stature and current performance level, but in terms of building his team for the future, this is real good for Roush.

“Despite what may be behind Kenseth’s departure, trading the championship points leader for a rookie is a trade down. Over the long haul, though, it’s beneficial for Roush because they can put their next big star in the big show and begin grooming him while they still have two legitimate title contenders in the mix."

–Dave Despain, host of Wind Tunnel

JAMIE ALLISON, director, Ford Racing — "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 Ford Racing fans. 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."

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