Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Judging by the reaction and the general vibe, it’s hard to tell who is more excited about former champion Matt Kenseth’s return to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition this week driving the No. 6 Wyndham Rewards Ford Fusion at Kansas Speedway for Roush Fenway Racing.
The team? Fans? Kenseth? Roush?
It’s been a delicate situation, but all concerned are hopeful that the new team dynamic results in better days ahead. Kenseth is going to share the driver’s seat with four-year Roush driver and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne for the remainder of the season.
Kenseth last competed in the 2017 Homestead-Miami Speedway season finale and has fully conceded that he hasn’t turned a lap in a race car since. But the always low-key Kenseth hasn’t sounded too concerned about the challenge, either. On paper, people may expect him to be rusty, but this is a venue where Kenseth has had success – winning back-to-back Monster Energy Series races at the 1.5-mile Kansas track in 2012-2013 as well as the 2012 NASCAR Xfinity Series race there.
It’s been six seasons since Kenseth was last in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford (2012). He won a Monster Energy Series championship (2003), two Daytona 500 trophies (2009, 2012) and 24 races for the organization. Prior to that, he drove Roush cars as he raced his good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. hard in pursuit of a pair of NASCAR Xfinity Series titles (called the Busch Grand National Series at the time) – winning seven of his 29 Xfinity trophies in his fulltime 1998 and 1999 seasons. He finished runner-up to Earnhardt for that title in 1998 and third to Earnhardt in 1999.
Kenseth left the Roush organization following the 2012 season to drive a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. He was there five full Cup seasons (2013-2017), winning 15 races and 12 pole positions. He finished runner-up to Jimmie Johnson for the 2013 championship.
But Erik Jones was given the full-time job in Kenseth’s seat driving Gibbs’ No. 20 this year. And despite the disappointment and any internal frustration he may feel, the 46-year old Kenseth has been nothing but gracious publicly about the decision for the 21-year-old Jones to take the wheel.
For many, the Roush news feels as if Kenseth has returned home. That certainly was the feeling when NASCAR Hall of Famer and former Roush Fenway Racing driver Mark Martin introduced Kenseth in the new role last month.
Roush was adamant and direct in revealing his decision to hire Kenseth, even in this rather unorthodox manner and timing. And to have Martin on stage with Kenseth was a visual explanation point and vote of confidence from the legendary owner.
“They were the two best guys at really finding the speed in their cars,’’ Roush said. “These are the best two guys that I’ve had of the 50 drivers who we’ve worked with in NASCAR at finding speed in the car – both in making recommendations to the team for hardware changes and for the things they face behind the steering wheel to make the right choices for the things they brought to the attention of the crew chief.’’
Martin is equally convinced that this will be a good situation. Or at least a better situation. He is supremely confident in Kenseth’s ability to correct the team’s course.
“I think there is zero rust, but slipping into something that’s completely new, like Matt’s said, the fit of everything and adjusting to where everything is in these cars, which is the last cars that he drove, those kind of things,’’ Martin said, adding, “and then the other part of it is he won’t have the opportunity to tailor anything about the race car going forward.
“In other words, every single race that you do, you come back and go through all that, is an opportunity for the whole organization to address specific issues and think through logically how can we make this particular part of the car better. … I think that having Matt in the race car will send them directly to areas that will bear fruit pretty quickly as they address those and not spend a lot of time trying to address some of the ones that might not ever bear fruit.
“After all, that’s what puts teams ahead of other teams.’’
There are many fond memories for Kenseth at Roush – and especially in the early days of this renewed partnership, that will be important. For him and the team.
His Roush teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s two restrictor plate wins last season were the championship operation’s only trips to Victory Lane since 2014. Stenhouse has a pair of top fives in his No. 17 Roush Ford and a best finish of fourth this season at Bristol. Bayne’s best finishes were 12th at Texas Motor Speedway last month and 13th at the Daytona 500. He has eight finishes of 20th or worse and is currently ranked 29th in the Monster Energy Series standings.
It may seem like a bold move to bring Kenseth in to the fold already 11 races into the season, but that’s what Roush thinks the team needs. And Kenseth says he’s ready.
“I don’t necessarily know about missing the first 11 races as the biggest challenge,’’ Kenseth said when introduced in his new role three weeks ago.
“I think even if it was the start of the season, the biggest challenges for me are gonna be that there is no testing, so you’re gonna hit Kansas with an hour-and-a-half of practice or whatever, and get ready to qualify in a car that I’ve never been in with a crew chief (Matt Puccia) that I’ve worked with a little bit, but not a lot.
“I really think the few extra months off, I really don’t feel like it’s gonna be a big deal. Of course, I could be wrong, but I think you’ll get on the track for 10 or 15 minutes and get out there and get acclimated, so I’m not really worried about that part.’’
Kenseth revealed this week that he has spoken with Bayne and thinks the two can move forward – and work together – in a positive manner.
“I think that he’s fine with me,’’ Kenseth told NBC Sports this week. “We had a really good conversation, actually. I’m looking forward to working with both of them. If you’re another driver filling in, it’s obviously not the driver’s decision, it’s an ownership thing. So certainly I don’t think Trevor and I have any problems at all.”
Kenseth definitely brings a lot of perspective to his new job. He was part of the Roush Fenway team when it fielded up to four cars, was winning races left and right and happily hoisting championship hardware. And he thinks the leaner two-car version may present a better opportunity to right the ship and return the former championship organization to the top again.
“It’s an interesting challenge for me and not just being a driver, I hope I can be much more to the organization and I’m hoping that there are a lot of different ways I can help,’’ Kenseth said.
“It’s fairly small right now, down to two teams and it’s leaner. I feel like they’re on the right trajectory. I feel like there are a lot of advantages to where they are at right now and I’m looking forward to getting in there and being a part of it and getting back immersed in the organization and kind of hopefully evaluate some things, hopefully continue projecting upwards.’’