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Jerry Bonkowski

Can Kenseth still win Cup title this year?

Posted June 26, 2012

Tuesday morning's announcement that Matt Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing will part ways at the end of this season is a real head-scratcher and leaves nothing but lots of questions and few answers in its wake.

Why would Jack Roush part ways with his most veteran driver? Why would Kenseth want to leave a place that has been his only home for all but one of his 452 career Sprint Cup starts?

Perhaps the most puzzling question of all is a two-parter: How can Roush simply let the current Sprint Cup points leader get away, and how, if at all, will Tuesday's news affect the No. 17 team's bid for its second Cup championship?

Roush has already announced Kenseth's replacement, naming 2011 Nationwide Series champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to take over the No. 17. That's great news for Stenhouse, but obviously has to be a blow for 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, who many expected to be the next promotion to the Cup series within RFR.

“Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has more than proved his abilities on the race track,” Roush said. “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."

On the flip side, Stenhouse's gain could also be Bayne's gain, as he moves up one position and into the top replacement spot on the RFR bench. Of course, that means either Greg Biffle or Carl Edwards will have to leave – which I don't see happening any time soon – or RFR goes back to a four-car team, another thing I don't see happening any time soon unless a major sponsor comes out of nowhere to fund a fourth car operation.

“We take great pride in the depth of the bench here,” said RFR team president Steve Newmark. “The organization’s ability to identify and develop new talent is part of our DNA and a cornerstone of our success.”

Still, while it appears there may be a lot of winners out of this whole thing – Kenseth gets his freedom to go elsewhere (and likely for a much larger contract), Stenhouse fulfills his dream of becoming a Cup driver and Bayne gets moved up on the depth chart – what happens to the rest of the No. 17 team for the remaining 20 races on the schedule?

How can what is now a lame-duck team keep itself motivated, knowing its driver – someone that most current team members have grown so close to in almost brotherly-like fashion – is gone at season's end?

Sure, they could do the "Win one for the Gipper" routine and give Kenseth the best going-away present he could possibly ask for.

But typically in NASCAR, when it's announced so early-on that a driver is leaving for another team, the crew members he leaves behind aren't always necessarily retained for the new guy behind the wheel. So in light of Tuesday's news, don't be surprised if some of Kenseth's current crew members start brushing up their resumes and begin some serious job hunting.

That will lead to distraction bordering on disinterest. Sure, some crew members may wind up going with Kenseth to his new home – be it the rumored Joe Gibbs Racing, or perhaps others that may have openings after this season, including Richard Childress Racing or Earnhardt Ganassi Racing – but Tuesday's announcement boils down to one thing:

The timing couldn't have been worst for a driver and team that want to win another championship. But Roush still went ahead with making Tuesday's announcement.

“I’d like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service,” Roush said. “Matt has been an integral part of this organization for well over a decade, and we are extremely appreciative of his accomplishments and contributions to the team, and 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.

"The No. 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.”

Sure, it would be a storybook ending to Kenseth's career at RFR if he wins the Cup crown at the end of this season. It would be a hell of a way to say goodbye to an organization that has supported him for well over a decade, as well as to say hello to his new destination, wherever that may be.

I understand RFR's reason to make the announcement now. It's simple: sponsorship. The marketing and sales execs at RFR now have about a six-month lead to start promoting and pushing Stenhouse as their newest driver – and potentially the next big star on the Sprint Cup series.

That makes sense.

Meanwhile, Kenseth is playing his cards close to the vest, as he has done for most of his career. While the odds are he'll wind up at JGR as either the replacement for Joey Logano in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota – provided Logano's contract is not renewed at season's end, of course – or to fill the long-anticipated fourth car for the organization, nothing is for certain.

Rumors have been mounting that Jeff Burton may be on the way out at RCR – and given his performance the last year and a half, it would not be overly surprising to see him depart. If team owner Richard Childress doesn't promote grandson Austin Dillon to replace Burton (and Dillon is still a good one or two more years away from that level), Kenseth would be a perfect fit to fill the shoes of Burton, his former Roush teammate, at Childress.

And then there's EGR. Team owner Chip Ganassi has shown incredible patience and restraint in trying to build his organization into a respectable championship contender. But other than a few highlights, Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya are just not getting it done there. Could Kenseth be the kind of guy that would not only reinvigorate EGR, but also bring it the consistency and success it has so desperately sought for more than the past decade?

If Richard Petty Motorsports or Penske Racing decide to expand from two to three cars for 2013, Kenseth would also be an attractive choice – if he isn't close to being signed, sealed and delivered to another team. After all, it's not every day that you can pick up a former Cup and two-time Daytona 500 champion.

Time will tell what Kenseth does in the next 20 races – his final 20 races for RFR. He's a racer's racer, someone who came up the hard way, starting on the short tracks of Midwest. He's worked for everything he's ever earned; nothing has come easy to the affable native of Cambridge, Wis.
It would be great to see him go out of RFR as a champion once again. Kenseth may be soft-spoken, but underneath that mild mannered exterior is one of the most competitive drivers you'll find on the Sprint Cup circuit. If his team doesn't give up on him, Kenseth will not give up on them.

And if he ultimately does not end up as champion in 2012, what better way to show how glad he is to be with a new organization than to go out and win the title in his first year there in 2013.
Or best yet, do both – win the title in his last year at RFR and repeat with his new team next season.

If anyone can pull that off, Kenseth can.

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