Matt Kenseth: 2012 NASCAR Season Has Been One of Great Irony

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 10, 2012

Will Sunday's win at Talladega be Matt Kenseth's last for Roush Fenway Racing, or does he still have a few more left before he leaves at season's end for Joe Gibbs Racing?
Will Sunday's win at Talladega be Matt Kenseth's last for Roush Fenway Racing, or does he still have a few more left before he leaves at season's end for Joe Gibbs Racing?John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE

There's a certain irony about Matt Kenseth's pending departure from Roush Fenway Racing and having driven a Ford for over a decade.

His soon-to-be ex-boss, Jack Roush, was one of the most vehement opponents at Toyota coming into Sprint Cup competition in 2007, all but vilifying the Japanese automaker and even consumers that would rather choose it over a Ford—or at the very least, another American car manufacturer.

And now, Kenseth will be driving for the very manufacturer Roush has hated from Day 1—and will likely hate even more when the man who brought him his first Cup championship in 2003 will now be racing for the enemy.

It's just one in a whole list of ironies for Kenseth in 2012, starting with the way he won the rain-delayed Daytona 500 (for the second time in his career), followed by a two-month silence on who he'd be racing for next season after announcing his plans to leave RFR at season's end.

Then there's the latest irony, the way Kenseth timed things so perfectly to not only avoid the two-dozen car pile-up at Talladega on Sunday, but then virtually emerged ahead of the smoke and mayhem to win there.

Not bad for a guy who is historically not the greatest restrictor plate racer in the business—yet another irony, right?

And what does Kenseth get for taking the checkered flag? He didn't move up even one spot, remaining last in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup.

In other words, all that work for seemingly little in return.

Such is the seemingly unending litany of irony that has been Kenseth's season.

But Tuesday, during a NASCAR national teleconference, Kenseth was quite introspective at the career he's had at RFR, virtually growing up with that team, and regardless of where he is in the standings with six races remaining, he intends on giving it his all while also expecting nothing less from his soon-to-be ex-team.

And there's yet another irony: trying to keep focus on what is still at hand, while not trying to get too far ahead of himself, starting to think about the next chapter of his career that immediately starts the day after this season's final race at Homestead Miami Speedway.

"It's not really as hard as it would seem," Kenseth said during Tuesday's teleconference, talking about maintaining perspective. "I think if we were running terrible or we weren't getting along or whatever, I think it would be harder.

"But everybody's been good as gold to me (at RFR). They always have been. And they still are right now. And they're giving us everything we need to go run good and try to win races, as this weekend was proof of that.

"So we're working as hard as we can until the end of 2012. A long time ago we renewed our agreement to the end of 2012. And it really says a lot about, I think, Roush Fenway's integrity, because they've really stuck to that agreement. They haven't not given me as good of stuff as anybody else. They haven't done anything different. It's been business as usual. We've been working as hard as we can to try to go win races and try to stay in the hunt for a championship. And we've both been working at that.

"So there has really been no crossover. It hasn't really been that hard. We're just all in at Roush Fenway until we're done with that."

While it would be great to see Kenseth start the season with a win at Daytona and end it with his second Cup championship at Homestead next month, unless the current points leaders have a dramatic drop-off in the remaining six races, Kenseth appears destined to finish in the bottom half of the 12-driver Chase standings.

Kenseth is currently 62 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski. That's a huge gap to try and make up, the equivalent of nearly 1 1/2 races—and that would have to be predicated upon Kenseth winning, say, two or more races in those remaining, while Keselowski would have to finish last in two or more events, as well.

And then there's Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who are knocking on the door behind Keselowski in the standings.

Needless to say, Kenseth would need a complete failure by the top three drivers in the Chase—and we've yet to see anything even remotely like that happening in the first eight editions of the Chase.

So why would the ninth year of the Chase be any different, just because this is Kenseth's last year at RFR and also because he's coming off a big win at Talladega, right?

Still, the Wisconsin native has been in the racing game for nearly 30 years and has seen a lot of strange things happen. Consider Johnson's first championship season in 2006.

Upon leaving Talladega, Johnson was more than 150 points behind the series leader with six races left. He and crew chief Chad Knaus were already starting to think about next season, figuring the season they still were left in had very little hope.

But then, Johnson and Knaus put together one of the biggest rallies in NASCAR history, erasing the huge deficit and eventually winning what would be the first of a record five Cup championships in a row.

Given that the current points system is both different and structured more in favor of drivers than the system Johnson had to contend with in 2006 through 2010, Kenseth is not giving up hope.

And wouldn't that provide yet another irony if he were indeed able to mirror Johnson's comeback in 2006 with his own in 2012, leaving RFR as champ. You couldn't write a better script than that.

Like he always has been throughout his Cup career, Kenseth has a what-will-be-will-be attitude about the remaining races. Sure, he could potentially mount a huge comeback and still win the championship. But Kenseth is more reserved when asked if he could do just that. That way, he doesn't make a promise he can't fulfill, and also not give his team or his fans too lofty of expectations.

But if anyone could rally back in Johnson-like fashion, it's definitely the driver of the No. 17 Ford Fusion.

"It's really important for me to finish this thing off on a high note," Kenseth said. "It would just break my heart if the thing was broken when I left. So I certainly didn't want that.

"We had a really rough few weeks in the Chase with parts breaking and falling off and not getting good finishes and not running good and everybody was getting close to being at each other's throats and things like that.

"So it's important for me to try to really try to keep that whole unit as a cohesive front-running championship-contending unit. I'm hoping in the next six weeks we can continue this momentum, hoping we can get another win or two and finish as high as we can in the points and end this thing on a high note."

Of course, it's hard not to start reflecting back on his time at RFR with each upcoming race. While Kenseth has been pretty steady and stoic emotionally throughout his Cup career, he conceded that he will miss his old team and all his friends that will remain with RFR after he leaves for Joe Gibbs Racing and to drive the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota next season.

"Any sports team is about people, and the organization is about people and there's been a lot of great people (at RFR)," Kenseth said. "I've had a lot of great advantages through my career. And probably the greatest advantage I probably had throughout my career is Robbie Reiser [Kenseth's former crew chief and now vice president of competition at RFR].

"I started with him in the Busch Series over at Reiser Enterprises, with him and his dad and his family owning that business. And Robbie is a great organizer, hard worker.

"From the first time we raced together—I remember running that first Busch race together—we were in only like our second practice session and he totally bought in what I said and totally believed in me and worked with me. That was the start of a really great, long successful working relationship.

"He's done a lot of great things over there. At the same time, when Robbie and I went over there they had a great organization. And Mark Martin and Jeff Burton were over there just winning tons of races and contending for championships. Those guys were a huge help to us as well."

Looking ahead, Kenseth is trying to maintain an even keel, although expectations of what he can bring to JGR next season continue to grow. The last thing Kenseth wants to do is worry about next season when he still has so much left to achieve this season.

"I don't think there's any apprehension at all, but there's certainly a small amount or some amount of anxiety," he admitted. "I mean, everything's different from the building to all the people, to the manufacturer, to the sponsors, the crew chief. All the stuff is different. There's a little bit of anxiety over that, just because you're real comfortable for where I've been for so many years and I'm not usually a guy that likes change. But, on the other hand, it's also really, really exciting.

"I've been with one of the best organizations in the sport for 15 years, been driving there 10 or 12, 13 years, whatever it's been, and we've had a pretty good amount of success there. But at the same time, I also get to go to another one of the winningest organizations in the sport and have two of the winningest drivers over there right now and go to a car that's won championships and a lot of races.

"So it's also real exciting to go try something different and see how things are done somewhere else, because obviously they have a lot of success as well. I am really excited about it, but yeah, there's a little bit of anxiety just because it's all going to be different."

It's somewhat rare in NASCAR to see a driver of Kenseth's pedigree and age (40) go from one of the top teams in the sport to an equally strong team. In most instances, when a veteran driver leaves one team for another, it typically signals that he's starting on the decline of his career performance-wise.

But not Kenseth. He's still a winning driver, as evidenced by his victories this season at Daytona and Sunday at Talladega, and he still has the potential to win another championship or two in his remaining seasons. The only difference is that he won't be doing so for RFR any more, but rather for JGR.

"I think that I have the second longest active driver/owner relationship in the garage," Kenseth said. "I'm pretty sure right next to Jeff (Gordon) and (Rick) Hendrick.

"When I've talked to Joe and JD (Gibbs) and went and saw some of their stuff and spent some time with them, I just really felt like that was the right place for me. I felt really comfortable with everything. I feel really good about their stuff, when you watch how good all their cars perform on the racetrack and how many races they win and all that kind of stuff. I just felt like that was the place for me. It really wasn't as hard or I wasn't probably as conflicted as one might think."

But one has to wonder, will Roush, Kenseth's soon-to-be ex-boss, come over and congratulate his former driver when he wins his first race driving a Toyota?

That's another irony just waiting to happen.


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