Preseason Rank: 9
SPONSOR WANTED: $20 million needed to fund former NASCAR champion. 21-time race winner, steady Chase performer, low-key, fairly level-headed driver (if Brian Vickers isn’t around) looking for a company to team with one of the series’ most successful organizations. Witty sarcasm and ingrained rivalry with Jeff Gordon included free of charge. If interested, call Jack Roush at …
That shouldn’t be a hard opening to fill, you would think, even in this depressed economy. After all, if a former champion can’t find full funding, especially after a three-win year and fourth-place finish in the Sprint Cup standings, who can? But that is exactly the position Matt Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing find themselves in heading into 2012. With former sponsor Crown Royal leaving the team and layoffs aplenty at RFR over the offseason, things are a bit unstable at the No. 17 shop as it works towards another championship run for the 39-year-old Wisconsin native.
What’s tough to take for this driver is a lack of reward for forward progress. After leading only 108 laps and going winless in 2010, Kenseth paced the field for 875 last season (sixth-best on the circuit), winning three times (fourth-best) and serving notice he would once again be a driver to be reckoned with in crunch time. While a second title wasn’t in the cards, simply being viewed as a main contender was a step in the right direction for a team that clearly had a piece missing since the days of the Kenseth-Robbie Reiser dynamo that ended after the 2007 season.
Credit for much of the turnaround should go to crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who stopped a pit box game of musical chairs post-Reiser after his 2010 placement at the No. 17. Both have the credentials and confidence to win another championship.
But it’s all about the Benjamins, baby, and bare white cars have everyone unnerved about the future. The loss of Crown Royal caught Kenseth, who is normally a cool customer, a bit off guard, and you wonder if the late-season on-track antics with Vickers that may have cost him a title came from that stress. Already, cutbacks by primary sponsor UPS caused Roush to release teammate David Ragan, reducing the organization from four Cup cars to three while cutting a third of the workforce. Over time, why would the No. 17 be any different?
“I’ve been there for a long time at Roush Fenway Racing,” Kenseth said last fall, trying to keep public confidence up. “About 14 years doing miscellaneous things here or there. We had our sponsor before Crown Royal, we had DeWalt for over a decade, so I think it's a good, stable, competitive program, and hopefully they can get something wrapped up for the future."
For the record, team president Steve Newmark commented toward the end of last year that Kenseth’s ride would not be in question this season. But even with the addition of Best Buy for nine races, Zest for four and Valvoline for a few more, a stark white paint scheme could adorn the No. 17 for numerous races. Roush did make a similar promise to former mainstay Jeff Burton in 2004, but by midseason the two parted ways as a younger Carl Edwards had sponsors willing to foot the bill. With teammates Edwards and Greg Biffle in fully funded rides, one also wonders how resources will get distributed. Will keeping other sponsors happy with strong showings outweigh the need to attract funding for Kenseth?
Some might say that personality is the problem here, that Kenseth’s deadpan, soft-spoken humor is lost on the general public. Is that where we’re really at in NASCAR 2012, with success in the boardroom determined via off-track popularity contests? Maybe.
“What’s important to me is trying to win races, trying to be competitive and doing the best job we can do every week,” Kenseth says. “I don’t really care about Wii dance-offs or how much coverage you get for doing certain things. If somebody wants to say I’m boring, I was hired to try to win races and try to run good and that’s what I try to do every week.
“I take my job real serious when I’m at the racetrack. Jimmy (Fennig) and I and all the guys work as hard as we can on the common goal of trying to be the best, trying to win and trying to run for a championship. That’s who we are.”
Such thinking should be what attracts a company to fill the help-wanted ad sitting in the window of the No. 17 shop. But until the sales and marketing department gets that call, Kenseth won’t be a serious title contender on determination alone.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
Halfway through the 2011 Chase it appeared that Kenseth was on his way to his second series title. Then, at Martinsville, he ran into Brian Vickers — or vice versa. What could have been a championship run turned into a tit-for-tat battle on the track with a non-Chase driver.
“Kenseth screwed himself out of Chase contention by stooping to Vickers’ level at Martinsville,” one insider says. “And he knows it.”
Kenseth is among the most consistent and level-headed drivers in the sport, but he showed that even he can be taken off target in the heat of the battle. Perhaps the repercussions of his ill-timed feud with Vickers taught the veteran driver to keep his patience. Still, there’s few drivers that can make the most out of less.
“Kenseth is probably the best in the sport at making the best of what he’s got,” a rival crew chief says. “Johnson and Harvick are the only other drivers who are even close.”
Top 5s: 12
Top 10s: 20
Laps Led: 875
Laps Completed: 10,421
Lead Lap Finishes: 28
Bonus Points: 34
Races Led: 23
Average Start: 14.2
Average Finish: 12.2
After First 26 Races: 4th
Final Points Standing: 4th
Driver Rating: 98.9 (4th)
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