Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: Did TV Networks Force Matt Kenseth to Bolt?

While it didn’t have quite the seismic kick of Junior kissing his girlfriend in victory lane, most of NASCAR nation was surprised to learn Tuesday morning (June 26) Matt Kenseth is leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season. Kenseth has, after all, been with the organization for 12 years and he’s the only member of the current RFR squad that’s won a Cup title.

During the 1998 and 1999 seasons, Kenseth’s car owner was officially listed as Robbie or John Reiser, a satellite operation to Roush Racing. That alliance began when he was the surprise winner at the then-Busch Series race at Rockingham in 1998, after knocking some guy named Tony Stewart out of the way exiting turn 4 on the final lap.

In addition to winning 22 Cup races for RFR, Kenseth has reliably made the Chase every year except for one (2009).

The timing of this announcement could hardly be more awkward. Kenseth is leading the points standings and is the reigning Daytona 500 champion. Now that he and his team have to put the drama of Tuesday’s announcement behind them, they must buckle down and get back to work trying to win the championship.

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Despite the friendly platitudes of the press releases issued by concerned parties Tuesday within the RFR organization, there’s got to be some hurt feelings and maybe even anger.

Ford is once again losing another top-name driver and champion to another manufacturer. Call me petty (but not Richard), but if I’m one of the guys working in the No. 17 shop, I’m going to be a little angry. The team is after all providing Kenseth with equipment that’s capable of winning nearly every week and a streak of strong consistent finishes has Kenseth atop the points.

How much greener pastures do you envision on the other side of the fence? Is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kenseth’s replacement, going to be able to attract and keep a sponsor with good results or is the future of the No. 17 team in question?

Am I going to have a job come next fall?

So why is Kenseth leaving his longtime home? It probably has more to do with sponsorship concerns as I see it. Despite being a legitimate title contender in 2011 until Kenseth and Brian Vickers had their run-ins during the Chase race at Martinsville, the No. 17 team lost its sponsor, Crown Royal, at the end of the season. (Remember that oh-so awkward moment in victory lane when Kenseth pleaded for them to come back to the team?)

This year, the No. 17 outfit has been running with a patchwork quilt of sponsors and they don’t have any funding lined up for several races. When you see the No. 17 running the black, blue and white Ford EcoBoost scheme, that’s like taking your sister to the prom. It just spares Ford and Roush from having to run blank quarterpanels like the No. 51 Phoenix Racing team of James Finch this past weekend at Sonoma.

While other big-name teams have had sponsorship issues, the Roush Fenway organization has been plagued by them. Over the years, several high-profile sponsors have either chosen to leave the team or cut back on their involvement to an associate or occasional sponsor.

Right off the top of my head I can recall Valvoline, UPS, Subway, AFLAC, Crown Royal, Tap ouT and Jeremiah Weed just to name a few. Garage gossip has it that RFR is out of touch with the economics of racing and while they know what it costs to run a competitive team, they’re not going to discount it to Wal-Mart pricing.

Another factor at play here may seem a bit more ominous. Kenseth won this year’s primetime running of the weather-and-fire-delayed Daytona 500, is running towards the front of the pack almost every week and he is, in fact the points leader. Guys who run up front get talked about and shown on TV a lot, right? In a perfect world.

The latest stats I could find from Joyce Julius were compiled after Dover, the 13th race of the season. To date Jimmie Johnson, who is fourth in the points has been interviewed 25 times on TV. Those interviews lasted almost 20 minutes total, with Johnson proudly displaying those big old Lowe’s graphics on his clown suit.

Kenseth, meanwhile, has been interviewed 13 times and was on air a mere eight minutes and 50 seconds. Oddly enough, Carl Edwards, who is struggling a bit this season and has yet to win, has been interviewed 18 times, garnering 17 minutes and 22 seconds worth of exposure. That’s more than twice his teammate who is leading the points.

Even Jeff Gordon, currently mired 18th in the points and still winless has more live interview minutes than Kenseth and more mentions to boot.

Perhaps even more tellingly, Johnson has been mentioned on air 2,361 times this season. Stewart is a distant second in that category with 1,776 mentions. Kenseth ranks seventh on the list with 1,336 mentions. When a driver is mentioned, typically he’s shown on TV – and that’s the sort of exposure the sponsors paying the big bucks crave.

Part of the problem is the FOX crew’s man-crush on the Hendrick quartet, particularly Waltrip’s obsession with Johnson. Since he does most of the talking, the mentions rack up quickly. But old DW isn’t aiming the cameras, at least not yet. If you watch a typical race on FOX, you’ve probably noted the cars that get shown the most often are sponsored by companies that also bought ad minutes during the race broadcast.

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Has there ever been a NASCAR race that didn’t have at least 10 minutes worth of Lowe’s ads?

So naturally, Johnson and the No. 48 get shown most often and mentioned most often. Crown Royal didn’t play that game well, so Kenseth lost his sponsor despite his racing solidly all last year. In addition to laying out the big dollars to sponsor a front-running team, it would seem logical that those companies also need to pay out the big bucks to the presenting networks, FOX, TNT and ESPN, if they actually expect to have their rolling billboards shown or mentioned during a broadcast.

They are basically holding those sponsors’ feet to the fire if they wish to actualize their marketing strategy.

After all, the TV guys choose where the cameras are pointed.

I’ve noticed lately that KFC is buying an awful lot of ads during race broadcasts. Then they have on air gimmicks like “KFC – Hot Off The Wire” (which is an unfortunate title; reminds me of chickens getting electrocuted in the slaughter house) that get them more mentions during the broadcast. Apparently, the Colonel’s marketing boys decided it was better to buy into the coverage than risk sponsoring a car and not having it shown on air.

In some cases this year things have gotten extremely out of hand. Danica-Mania isn’t just fueled by the novelty of a female driver in the sport, it’s fueled by heavy ad buys by GoDaddy.com. On a typical TV broadcast, Patrick will likely get more air time than the guy who finished second. It’s gotten so ridiculous, when she wrecks the TV crews hurry to the garage to show clear and in focus images of the GoDaddy-sponsored car being repaired even while there’s green-flag racing going on.

But the most cynical effort I’ve seen on behalf of FOX involves their side-by-side coverage for the last hour of most races. In theory it’s a grand idea allowing fans to keep up with the race during breaks. In practice, too often the small screen shows the car sponsored by the same company running the ad even though that car isn’t racing anyone nearby. There might be a pass for the lead but we’ll still be focused on those Lowe’s logos on the No. 48 hood. That renders the whole concept useless.

Naturally if a driver wins, he and his car has to be shown on TV. But for how long? Have you noticed sometimes when a driver wins the cameras focus on his cool-down lap and his victory burnouts, but other times they show the leader crossing the line and cut away to commercial then come back and start the interviews?

Here’s a hint: The guys who get the extended coverage of their win are sponsored by companies that bought ads for the broadcast.

Add in the fact NASCAR is also competing for those same marketing bucks by luring sponsors to become “The Official Whatever of NASCAR” and suddenly you’ve got three huge hogs, all trying to get their nose in a trough that ain’t as full as it once was. In fact, to complete the circle, the network execs would probably say the huge fees NASCAR charges for broadcast rights mean we have to find novel ways to earn some of that money back, even at the expense of the broadcast itself.

What it comes down to is NASCAR racing isn’t a business, it’s a sport. Oh, there’s a business aspect to it of course, but at heart it’s a sport. Thus a race broadcast should show the race. It should focus on the drivers who are running up front, making decisive passes as they cut their way from the back to the front, or engaged in a side-by-side battle for 18th if nothing is going on up front.

Cars that are running competitively should be shown regardless of whether their sponsors bought ads in the broadcast. This is a race – not a paid infomercial. There should be a separation between the network ad division and the broadcasters themselves, like there’s a line between church and state. If this sport has devolved to the point when the networks have a hand in deciding which teams will prosper or even survive something has gone badly amok.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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