Here's a summer's-day stunner: Matt Kenseth, the Sprint Cup points leader and current best average finisher, is leaving Roush Fenway at the end of the 2012 season.
His replacement will be Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the reigning Nationwide series champion and a driver well positioned to make the jump to Sprint Cup.
The Roush Fenway statement announcing Kenseth's departure was long on gratitude — "We're fortunate that we were able to tap into Matt's potential and bring him on board many years ago," said Jack Roush — but short on the specifics of whether Kenseth jumped or was pushed out of the No. 17 Ford Fusion.
It wasn't that long ago that Roush sang a decidedly different tune. "Matt Kenseth is a cornerstone of Roush Fenway and he'll be part of it as long as I am, as long as he wants to be,'' Roush said in mid-May at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "He certainly has a place here as long as I'm able to stay at the head of it.''
Kenseth also gave a hint of the direction of the departure on Twitter. After thanking Roush and expressing an intention to continue to push hard the rest of the season, he added, "Although I have nothing to announce regarding 2013, I feel the timing of this announcement gives RFR ample time to get things lined up..." (Ellipses his.) It's not too big a leap to project that Kenseth pulled the plug, but out of respect to Roush gave the team five months' notice to get prepared for the transition ... and, of course, put himself in play for another job.
Still, Kenseth later noted that there's work to do this year. "Darien [Grubb] and Tony [Stewart] proved to us last year there is no such thing as a 'lame duck' team or season," he said. "We will continue to go to work and race hard."
Certainly, Kenseth's sponsorship issues have played a part in this. Roush Fenway has had trouble finding sponsors for Kenseth, a surprising development for a driver who's won a championship, two Daytona 500s and 22 races overall. RFR has also committed to Kenseth's other teammates in a major fashion. Last year, Carl Edwards received what is likely one of the largest contracts in NASCAR history, and sponsors have lined up to jockey for space on his No. 99. Greg Biffle, meanwhile, similarly locked into a long-term deal, albeit with 3M as his major partner.
The irony, of course, is that Kenseth is now driving better than both of them, and is one of the leading contenders for the 2012 Sprint Cup. He's perfected the bend-but-don't-break style of driving that's given him the best average finish (7.7) in the series this year. (Biffle ranks second, Edwards 11th.)
The loss of Kenseth will be a blow not just to RFR but to Ford as well, which has experienced a resurgence with Kenseth leading the charge. "All of us at Ford are certainly disappointed to hear that Matt will be leaving, and he will be certainly missed by us and the Ford Racing fans," Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing, said in a statement. "We are thankful for Matt's winning efforts and championship-caliber success with the Roush and Ford racing programs these past 16 years, both on and off the track. We will focus on this year and look forward to more success on the track in his No. 17 Ford Fusion this season."
Regardless of reason, Kenseth's departure sends what was already projected as a fast-moving "silly season" into a new gear altogether. Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were already projected as the top free agents. While Truex has publicly announced his intention to stay with Michael Waltrip Racing and sponsorship/attitude concerns dog Busch, Kenseth could find his biggest job-search rival in fellow Daytona 500 winner Newman.
The logical place for both drivers to look would be Joe Gibbs Racing, which not only has a potential fourth slot open, but also a driver in Joey Logano very much on the proverbial hot seat. Given Kenseth's difficulty with sponsorship, it's not a reach to think that Gibbs would want to pair him up with a proven sponsor in Home Depot rather than cobble together a patchwork deal like he has this year. Still, a Kenseth/Denny Hamlin/Kyle Busch trio would be formidable indeed.
As for Roush Fenway, it's seeing its top driver walk out the door in the very year the team is enjoying its greatest run in quite some time. As good as Stenhouse is, he won't match Kenseth's ability for years. And this could be a considerable setback for a team that was set to challenge Hendrick Motorsports at the top of the NASCAR pantheon.
Regardless, this will be the major topic of conversation this weekend in Kentucky. There's just enough time for everyone to get their stories straight ... and for Kenseth to come up with some of his characteristic bone-dry jokes about it all.