Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito? Matt Kenseth’s Shockwave Departure

Matt Kenseth sent shockwaves through the Sprint Cup Series this week when it was revealed he would not be back with the No. 17 team in 2013. Kenseth, the 2000 Rookie of the Year, 2003 Winston Cup Champion (the last non-Chase champion) and two-time Daytona 500 winner will be racing elsewhere for the first time since 1999 next year.

The popular notion has Kenseth headed to Joe Gibbs Racing for 2013 – no word on if it is to replace Joey Logano in the No. 20 Home Depot machine, or the long-rumored fourth team at JGR.

With Matt McLaughlin’s piece this week touting the number of interviews, minutes of interviews and mentions during a race that other drivers who have accomplished less this season, is it little wonder that Kenseth talks a mile a minute like the Micro Machines and FedEx guy in those ads from the 1980s?

Editor’s Note: It was John Moschitta Jr. who was known for his fast talking.

Kenseth’s departure also echoes a couple of disturbing trends as of late. First off, the last two Daytona 500 winners apparently are incapable of attracting any sort of sponsorship. Trevor Bayne, probably the nicest, cleanest cut and living driver in the garage area, has had blank quarterpanels for over a year and a half now in the Nationwide Series and still competes only sparingly in the Cup Series when the Wood Brothers have funding from Ford and their Motorcraft brand.

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

Kenseth won this year’s primetime jet-fire fueled Daytona 500, his second in three years, and is leading the points – but can’t land a sponsor.

Wasn’t the whole point of Fenway Sports Group buying into Roush Racing to help them secure sponsorship into the future and during this troubled and challenging economic times? If it wasn’t for Ford Motor Company and Jamie Allison opening up the checkbook and bankrolling half of their cars, would the lights be shut off in Livonia?

Explain to me how winning the biggest race in the world two years running nets you part-time sponsorship, one of them from an electronics superstore that is boarding up half of their locations and teetering on the brink of Circuit City-dom.

If Roush Fenway isn’t losing sponsorship, it’s also losing drivers left and right. Where else than besides the company that he carried on his surgically fused back for nearly a decade, would Mark Martin be told they didn’t have use for him in a Cup car, after he made a mockery of the Truck Series races in competed in part time in 2006?

Johnny Benson Jr. was dismissed after just two years at the end of the 1999 season prior to the infamous Goody’s Headache Powders 500 at Bristol in August that year and nearly shocked the world by nearly winning the 2000 Daytona 500 in a Pontiac that might as well been unsponsored (it had an 11th-hour sponsorship from Lycos, but it turned out that they failed to pay for their sponsorship, putting the team in dire straits by midseason).

Editor’s Note: Then-Roush Racing and Benson agreed to “mutually split.”

Jeff Burton jumped ship halfway through 2004, went to RCR and helped to resurrect an organization and his own career in the process. Kenseth’s abrupt departure makes one wonder just how involved Roush remains in the decisions of who stays, who goes, and what sponsorship opportunities are being pursued or rejected. After Martin’s unceremonious release in 2006, Roush blamed himself for not being more aware or involved in the process.

Given his brushes with mortality the past few years, one can forgive the Cat in the Hat if he has had his attention drawn elsewhere.

While Kenseth will surely land on his feet and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a very capable and Cup-ready young driver, this is a move that goes beyond the “economy sucks/racecars are expensive” argument. The foundation of what was originally Roush Racing has all but crumbled or left the building.

Since Roush Racing became Roush Fenway Racing, it has been one misstep after another, from losing its core and backbone, and losing over a year of relevance running flawed simulation software in 2009-2010, the lone bright spots have been Kenseth’s Daytona 500 triumphs, and Stenhouse’s 2011 Nationwide championship.

Sure, Carl Edwards nearly won the 2011 Sprint Cup, but he lost on a tiebreaker to a guy in a Chevrolet who won five times as many races and had a chunk of Kurt Busch’s bell housing in his radiator in the process.

While it’s sackcloth and ashes at Roush Fenway Racing, there is cause for rejoicing and celebration for the Danimaniacs following her performance this past weekend at Road America. Finally, for the first time in her brief fendered career, she looked like a real stock car driver. Not racecar driver – stock car driver.

She drove from 10th to second and then took the lead for a couple of corners … before she biffed it and nearly parked it in the gravel trap. Danica was door to door with the best drivers in the past 25 years of road racing, including Ron Fellows and Jacques Villeneuve, yielding to nobody, making them earn it with none of the “Panica” moments we’ve come to hear over the radio sometimes on ovals.

She was running a smart race, preserving her equipment, exercising patience and waiting for the end of the race to use up what was left. Everything was going swimmingly until she got Jacqued-up from behind.

This has become a disturbing trend the past couple of years anytime Villeneuve is in the field for the NASCAR road-course races. All you see is this white Dodge Challenger making an erratic, wild, non-executable, Vanishing Point-quality, last-ditch move that you’d only attempt in a video game, and then just laughs it off like it’s no big deal because he gets to go make more really bad music as a poor-man’s French-Canadian Dave Matthews.

After he dumped Danica by way of a 100-yard wheel hop into the back of the GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, Villeneuve was confronted by Patrick’s crew chief Tony Eury Jr. after the race asking what happened. Villeneuve was short with him and seemed to blow off the incident when asked about it on TV.

Didn’t Roger Penske just ditch another one of his drivers for being brazen, unapologetic and a general pain in the ass?

It is in Villain-move’s best interests that he limits his appearances to one race in the states this year and the other on his home turf in Montreal. While NASCAR fans are always more than welcoming to foreign drivers who want to try their hand at monster muscle car racing, we’re also very protective of our own.

While some fans may get tired of constant fawning over Duchess Danica, you don’t push a girl. While you might be able to get away with something like that at a far-flung road course hidden in God’s country somewhere deep in the forest bowls of cheese land, that wouldn’t go over so well at Bristol, Richmond or Talladega. The latter more so because that’s Junior’s car and everybody actually really does still have No. 8 tattoos.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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