Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – In a warm homecoming sort of spirit, Roush Fenway Racing announced Wednesday that veteran driver Matt Kenseth, who won a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship with the team back in 2003, would return to the organization next month and share driving time with Trevor Bayne in the No. 6 Ford.
Kenseth, 46, spent his first 13 full-time Monster Energy Series seasons driving for Roush – winning a pair of Daytona 500 trophies and the season title – before moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he competed from 2013-2017.
While the Roush team said it hadn’t formalized Kenseth’s complete 2018 schedule yet, it did confirm that his first race back in the car would be May 12 at Kansas Speedway, where Kenseth has a pair of victories. He will also drive the car in the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway a week later, May 19.
The organization’s announcement Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame also included news that the Wyndham Hotel Group has joined the team as a new primary sponsor and will be on the No. 6 for Kenseth’s season debut at Kansas.
It was long-time Roush Fenway Racing driver and NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin who introduced Kenseth formally to the gathered crowd of reporters and fans. And he referenced Kenseth as his “favorite driver” several times during the hour-long announcement, speaking about the good feeling he had from his first meeting with Kenseth decades ago.
“I had a lot to do with bringing him here 20 years ago and I’m really, really excited to introduce him here today,’’ Martin said.
Kenseth took the stage and immediately joked with his close friend, saying that if he had waited for Martin to retire before getting a shot in Roush’s No. 6 car, “I would have been 39 [years old] my rookie year.”
Throughout the formal portion of the announcement, Kenseth spoke often of his desire to not only drive but to be a long-term resource for the team – whatever that needed to be, in whatever role he needed to serve.
“The timing, to you guys, it might seem weird, but the timing was right,’’ Kenseth said. “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.’’
And, he added, that he intended for this professional reunion to last a while.
“I think that’s what all 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,’’ Kenseth said, adding, “I would say 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.
“It’s more about coming here and trying to help and coming to see what the farther out future looks like for me.’’
Certainly Kenseth’s past with the Roush team was among the organization’s most successful. The Wisconsin driver earned the longtime NASCAR team owner his first Monster Energy Series championship in 2003. And Kenseth scored 24 of his 39 wins with Roush – including the organization’s only two Daytona 500 victories in 2009 and 2012.
Since Kenseth left Roush following the 2012 season, the team has earned only seven more wins. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who drives the No. 17, won twice last year and is the defending winner of this weekend’s race, the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
“Matt is one of the guys who really put us on the map of the racing landscape,’’ Jack Roush said. “He’s one of the most talented drivers to ever sit inside a race car and his will to win, drive and determination have always embodied what we strive for as an organization.’’
Roush also conceded, however, that the reason he hadn’t approached Kenseth earlier about a reunion was because he still wasn’t completely over Kenseth’s move from Roush to Gibbs six years ago.
“His question to me was, ‘Why did it take so long’ for me to call,’’ Roush said, noting Kenseth’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing was painful at the time.
“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.’’
The mood was noticeably optimistic about the changes and potential of the new look team, however. And Kenseth reiterated he was eager to get racing again.
Kenseth said he’s watched all the Monster Energy Series races this season on television, although he allowed that he’s “probably watched more closely the last few weeks.’’
He said he hasn’t spoken to Bayne yet about the new situation sharing the No. 6 Ford the remainder of the season, but he planned to talk to him in the next week.
In the meantime, Roush Fenway Racing arrives at Talladega Superspeedway (Sunday, April 29, 2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) later this week as defending champions of the race – a position Kenseth hopes will happen more frequently going forward.
As Kenseth’s longtime friend and mentor Martin reminded the crowd, ‘“Just because you walk away from the race car for a while doesn’t mean you’re done forever.”