Matt Kenseth’s 2003 Cup Series championship came in the midst of the peak of what’s now Roush Fenway Racing. A year before, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch finished second and third behind Tony Stewart in the season standings.
In 2004, Busch won the championship, the first in NASCAR’s playoff era. In 2005, all five of Roush’s drivers made the 10-driver playoff field. Kenseth was second in 2006 and Carl Edwards won nine races in 2009 before finishing second to Tony Stewart in the 2011 playoffs via tiebreaker.
Since then, things haven’t looked as rosy for Roush. The team has won 12 races since the beginning of the 2012 season and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s two wins in 2017 snapped a winless streak that lasted almost three seasons.
Kenseth is well aware of that decline. And as he officially rejoins the team as a driver starting on May 12, he wants to make sure he can do what he can to get the team as close as he can to being back where it was 10 years ago.
“Certainly, to come back and hopefully help Jack, who has done so much obviously for my career, hopefully get Roush Fenway Racing running better again,” Kenseth said. “I feel like they’ve been definitely trending in the right direction … I think it’s a good challenge for me that I’m looking forward to and not just the driving part, but a lot of the rest of it too, to hopefully get in there and get my hands dirty and try to evaluate what we can do better – what we’re doing good and what we can do better – and to go on from there.”
Kenseth entered the 2018 season as the best driver without a ride. The 46-year-old didn’t want to leave the Cup Series at the end of the 2017 season, but found himself on the wrong end of a sport cutting costs with younger and cheaper drivers.
But with both Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne both hitting the wall on a fairly regular basis to start the season and Bayne not showing the same speed Stenhouse is, the team clearly felt it was time to make a change in the No. 6 car. Bayne and Kenseth will share the ride for the rest of the season on an as-yet-undetermined basis, though it stands to reason Kenseth will be in the car whenever AdvoCare isn’t a sponsor.
For Kenseth, however, this isn’t a move just to get back into the seat of a Cup car. He made it fairly clear that he wants to figure out how he fits into the NASCAR world once his driving career is up. Preferably on his terms, of course.
“I would say that this opportunity is probably as much about the rest of it – the rest of my role and possible future role than it is just the driving,” Kenseth said. “If it was just strictly about driving, I probably would have been at Daytona driving something. It’s more about the rest of it. It’s more about coming here and trying to help and coming to see what the farther out future looks like for me – three, four, five years down the road – if it’s something I’m good at – trying to help in the shop, trying to just kind of see what it’s like.”
When Roush called Kenseth about possibly taking a role with the team in 2018, the team owner said Kenseth asked him why it took so long to make the call. That led to an admittance from Roush that it took him a while to get over Kenseth’s departure.
Three of the 12 wins over the last six-plus seasons came via Kenseth in 2012, his final with Roush. Perhaps seeing the decline first-hand and the rise of Joe Gibbs Racing from across the garage, Kenseth signed with JGR and promptly won a career-high seven races in 2013.
“I still had a little bit of a rawness over the fact that he left me when he did,” Roush said. “We had another championship out there, I thought, that we could have had in short order. I missed that, so it took me a little while to get over it.”
Well, Roush is clearly over it now. Though he may simply have to be. 2012 was the team’s first season with just three cars since 1996. Last season was the team’s first with two cars. What was once a team that helped lead to NASCAR instituting a four-car maximum for teams in the Cup Series now has as many cars as JTG-Daugherty Racing and Front Row Motorsports.
“It’s fairly small right now – down to two teams and it’s leaner – and I feel like they’re on the right trajectory,” Kenseth said. “I feel like there are a lot of advantages to where they are at right now, and I’m looking forward to getting in there and being a part of it and getting back immersed in the organization and kind of hopefully evaluate some things, hopefully continue projecting upwards.”
If the upward trajectory continues through the final 75 percent of 2018, Kenseth may be around in 2019.
“We kind of got this all together pretty quickly, but I think that’s what all of our hopes are – is to continue this long-term and get back to turning the TV on and seeing the Roush cars up front every week,” Kenseth said.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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