Typically a quiet model of consistency, 2012 has proven a rocky campaign for Sprint Cup driver Matt Kenseth. The year has delivered substantial challenges, including formulating plans to end his 13 year relationship with Roush-Fenway Racing. Yet, the 40 year-old competitor also has enjoyed substantial successes this season. No moment was sweeter than the year's first race, when Kenseth achieved victory in the Daytona 500.
Kenseth currently sits in 12th place in the Sprint Cup standings and a distant 72 points behind leader Brad Keselowski after 3 races of the Chase. Entering this weekend's event at the unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway, another disappointing finish will likely eliminate the Ford driver from contention for the championship. But there remains reason for optimism for the Wisconsin native, who would savor departing his longtime NASCAR home on a high note. Here's a look at a memorable 2012 campaign for Matt Kenseth.
Wins 54th Annual Daytona 500: This year's Daytona 500 will likely be long remembered and that's perfectly fine with winner Matt Kenseth, who captured the first version of NASCAR's crown jewel to be postponed for rain. The day late event was showcased under the lights and broadcasted on prime time television. Despite a series of mega-crashes, and an unlikely red flag for a track fire involving a jet dryer, Kenseth's performance should not be overlooked. Having triumphed in one of the preliminary Gatorade Duels, the Roush-Fenway driver entered the race with a strong car and proved it by leading 50 laps. Kenseth was in top form during the race's final 20 laps, when he held off fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and hard-charging Greg Biffle to claim his second Daytona 500.
Departure from Roush-Fenway Racing: NASCAR is different from many sports in that game-day performance is often marginalized by off-track results. Failing to replace longtime sponsor DeWalt Tools, it was known that the #17 team faced financial challenges that even a Daytona 500 victory could not overcome. Roush-Fenway already reduced Sprint Cup efforts to 3 cars for 2012 and the squad was seeking a home for 25 year-old Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who displayed readiness to make the next step in his development. Though the 40 year-old Kenseth has been a model of consistency, he surprisingly became the stable's odd man out, since teammates Biffle and Carl Edwards are under contract and possess adequate sponsorship. Team president (and former Kenseth crew chief) Robbie Reiser shocked NASCAR in June by announcing the mutual decision to make 2012 the final season at Roush-Fenway for the 2003 Sprint Cup champion.
Qualifies for Chase for the Sprint Cup: It's only appropriate that Kenseth departs his 13 year home with a final appearance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Though the Wisconsin native has yet to claim another victory in 2012, he used consistent finishes to place among the regular season's 12 best drivers. With 10 top fives, 16 top tens, and only 1 failure to finish, Kenseth impressively qualified for the Chase for the 8th time in its 9 year history. Only missing the action in 2009, the driver has earned 22 victories in 464 Sprint Cup starts for Roush-Fenway. A long list of career highlights includes winning the 2000 Rookie of the Year Award, a series-high 5 victories in 2002, the 2003 Sprint Cup Championship, a runner-up finish in 2006, and the 2009 Daytona 500.
Move to Joe Gibbs Racing: Though Kenseth's departure from Roush-Fenway proved a surprise, the September announcement of his 2013 move to Joe Gibbs Racing was widely predicted. With Joey Logano leaving the #20 car, the perennially competitive ride appeared a logical landing spot for the veteran. The young Logano was thrust into the Home Depot Toyota in 2009 following the exit of 3 time Sprint Cup winner Tony Stewart. Though the 22 year-old retains potential, Logano's performance failed to meet the lofty standards of his predecessor. In contrast, Kenseth appears an ideal fit and the NASCAR veteran should provide stability for younger, fiery teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Ironically, the soft-spoken driver recently experienced one of the rare turbulent moments of his career, when an angry Stewart tossed his helmet at Kenseth's passing car following an August incident at Bristol, where the rivals were battling for the lead.
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Jeff Briscoe is a longtime NASCAR fan and proud Mark Martin supporter. He talksmotorsports and more on The Sports Train radio show in Southwest Florida.
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