Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Kenseth’s Championship Problem, Keeping Earnhardt in Line & Quick Hits

Did You Notice? No Cup Series champion in the modern era has driven for a different team the following season? That’s a stat Matt Kenseth won’t like to hear, mere hours after informing the world he’ll be leaving his lone Cup home, Roush Fenway Racing, following the 2012 season.

Kenseth’s No. 17 team didn’t just win this year’s Daytona 500; they’re leading the Chase for the Cup, armed with an average finish of 7.7 and lead-lap finishes in 15 of 16 events. Winning just a shade less than $4 million, Kenseth has made more money on-track in 2012 than future Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin combined.

See also
Full Throttle: Jack Roush Runs Off Another Cup Champion

Those hefty totals mean little, though, when you combine them with the words lame duck. For the rest of the year, that’s what every crewman wearing a No. 17 uniform has become, prepping for a transition to Nationwide-veteran-turned Cup-Series-rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2013.

Suddenly, the one team that looked primed to battle against Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and the Hendrick/Stewart-Haas contingent is looking like a longshot at the craps table.

Yes, I know last season Stewart’s Chase was successful despite the lame-duck status of crew chief Darian Grubb. But the circumstances were far different. Grubb wasn’t told of his pending release until Charlotte in October, halfway through the playoffs and even then there was a specter of hope he’d be retained for 2012.

Grubb’s move was also not funding-dependent and, most importantly, he didn’t drive the car. As driver/owner, Stewart was also still going to give the best equipment to the man behind the wheel at all times.

Can we say the same about Roush Fenway going forward? No matter what they say in public, inside the RFR walls the game has changed. The long-term future of the company hinges on building up sponsorship for someone else, all while injecting life into the struggling No. 99 car of Carl Edwards.

There’s a new Fusion game in town, led by Roger Penske in 2013 and Roush no longer has the leverage he’s had in the past. The last thing his mind will be focused on is the “championship needs” of a soon-to-be-former employee.

Looking back at the history of the Chase, we’ve had just five drivers qualify knowing they’d be with a different organization – or not even racing – the following season. None of them were in serious contention for the title, and just one finished inside the top five (see list below):

Year, Driver, Pending Silly Season Move, Points Finish
2005: Rusty Wallace (from Penske to retirement) – 8th
2005: Kurt Busch (from Roush to Penske) – 10th
2006: Mark Martin (from Roush to part-time schedule with Bobby Ginn) – 9th
2007: Kyle Busch (from Hendrick to Gibbs) – 5th
2008: Tony Stewart (from Gibbs to self-owned team) – 9th

That’s not a historical precedent that bodes well for Kenseth, a quiet guy who struggled to handle the reins of public leadership after Martin departed the race team after ‘06. It’s a double whammy of trying to stay in the loop with a soon-to-be-former company, all the while keeping hope alive for one last hurrah with your crew.

It’s a tough scenario his far more charismatic teammate, Edwards, took into consideration when deciding whether or not to re-sign with RFR last season (he was in a similar situation in points at the time).

Unfortunately, what we may find out for Kenseth in the coming days is that the lack of funding on the No. 17 left him with no choice. Joe Gibbs Racing, either with the No. 20 or a new fourth car will give him the long-term option to keep competing well into his 40s. But years from now, he may look back on this season and rue the one that got away.

Did You Notice? Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory does not guarantee a springboard to the championship? Crew chief Steve Letarte’s biggest hurdle, especially after some 23rd-place poor luck at Sonoma is keeping the confidence inside the No. 88 camp.

Next up is Kentucky, a virtual unknown where the team struggled the second they unloaded off the truck last year; Earnhardt started 29th and finished 30th. Then comes the crapshoot of Daytona, where one ill-timed wreck can leave you sitting inside the garage … you get the picture.

For proof of how quickly Earnhardt can fizzle, look no further than his 2008 campaign following his “other” win at Michigan. Few remember back then chemistry with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was just fine; the No. 88 was solidly inside the top five in points and most thought the first year with Hendrick Motorsports was on the verge of returning Earnhardt to superstardom.

Instead, the team went 11 races without a top-five finish, running fourth in the Richmond season finale and promptly went on to flop during the Chase. Earning as many DNFs in the 10-race playoff as top-10 finishes (two) Earnhardt finished dead last and the push to fire Eury and revamp the crew had officially begun.

I will say the vibe in 2012 appears different than what we saw the last time. Letarte has become skilled at recognizing what makes Earnhardt tick and controlling his personality inside the car – half the battle. But it’s important for the team to continue to conquer their weaknesses, similar to how they contended for the victory at Pocono a few weeks back.

Even if those tracks aren’t in the Chase, it’s displacing past history that haunts NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver until he’s holding a championship trophy.

Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off.

  • How much did Earnhardt’s win invigorate the sport? Sunday’s race at Sonoma had 84,000 fewer viewers than the week before in Michigan, was the least viewed points-paying race of the year and saw at-track attendance decline by two percent. So either a lot of formerly disheartened Earnhardt fans don’t live in Napa Valley, Calif. or “the post-Junior boost” hasn’t exactly happened quite yet.
  • Last year heading to Kentucky, Joey Logano was considered a pre-race favorite, winning three straight times in his Nationwide career at the track. Instead, the weekend proved a disaster; 10th in Nationwide, 14th in Cup and never a challenger for the victory in either case. With a Barnum & Bailey-like circus developing around his future, I’d recommend not repeating that performance at a track where he’s expected to contend.
  • With 10 races left until the Chase, I’m thinking Martin Truex Jr. has got to be feeling awfully nervous. Yes, he’s still 41 points up on 11th-place Edwards. But for the first time all year, he’s gone three straight races without a top-10 finish and fallen to ninth in points. He joins Kevin Harvick as one of only two drivers inside the top 10 that haven’t won. Like Kenseth, he’s in a contract year and sponsor NAPA has yet to ink a long-term extension. Distracted yet? The other problem is the list of talent sitting just underneath: Brad Keselowski, Edwards, and Kyle Busch. All you need is two of those drivers to get hot in the last 10 races, racking up a bunch of top-five finishes and Truex is toast.
  • Still question whether Clint Bowyer made the wrong move, jumping from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip Racing? He led more laps on Sunday (71) than the entire RCR team has in the last 14 races combined. With Stenhouse now moving up the Cup ladder, that’s got to get Childress at least thinking about bumping up Austin Dillon a year early.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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