CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Any time drivers contemplate whether to end a career or continue racing, they often talk about wanting to go somewhere they can win races.
Roush Fenway Racing, the records show, hasn’t won a non-restrictor plate race since 2014.
So why did Matt Kenseth return to the organization where he spent 13 years before leaving for Joe Gibbs Racing following the 2012 season?
The 46-year-old Kenseth paused before delivering his answer, probably not sure whether to be funny or serious.
“Why not?” Kenseth said Wednesday afternoon at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but when I went to the 20 car [at JGR] they won one race in four years before I got there.
“If the teams are winning races on a regular basis, they probably are not going to want a driver or need a driver. They’re definitely on the upswing. Roush Fenway Racing is one of the most winning organizations in this sport’s history. I think it can certainly return to that.”
For the record, Joey Logano had won one race in the previous three years (two races in the previous four) in the No. 20 car before being replaced by Kenseth, who won seven in his first year and 15 overall at JGR.
But let’s focus for a moment on the first part of the answer: Why not? Kenseth has had a Hall of Fame career with 39 victories, including 24 Cup victories and the 2003 NASCAR Cup Series title at Roush Fenway. He said he doesn’t feel like he has anything else to prove. It’s hard to imagine he needs the money.
So he has just decided to run a part-time schedule that many would view as joining a rebuilding project in progress, an organization with a car whose current driver (Trevor Bayne) is 26th in the standings and whose other driver (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) is 19th.
“I’m a competitive person,” Kenseth said. “I like to compete. I don’t really know much else other than stock-car racing. I think there are some opportunities this year and in the future to be more than just a driver, and that interested me. When I first went to Joe Gibbs Racing, I felt like I was a lot more than a driver, the first year or two, especially. That kind of changed to just being a driver.”
Kenseth doesn’t view himself as a miracle worker. He does view himself potentially having a managerial role at Roush Fenway, and this is a good way to return to the organization where he spent the first 13 seasons of his Cup career.
“I haven’t really been over there much, so I don’t really know exactly where they’re at with everything, but I certainly think they’re on the right path,” Kenseth said. “The Fords have been running good this year, so we know the Roush Yates Engines are running good and the body style is not an issue.
“So I feel like the pieces are there. I’m looking forward to the challenge of trying to get it back to that point.”
Sometimes things just seem right to do, Kenseth said.
“You can just usually tell if it feels right or doesn’t,” Kenseth said. “You look at what’s in front of you and make a decision from there. … It’s been a little bit of a moving target.
“There was a time where it might be the thing to go do, and then there were other times where things change and it didn’t look like it was going to happen. The last iteration of it all kind of made a lot of sense and felt like a perfect way and time to get back in.”
The return of Kenseth, in a part-time role that possibly could include as many as the 18 races that AdvoCare doesn’t sponsor Trevor Bayne, was a little bit of surprise. It is not a surprise that Roush Fenway was looking to replace Bayne, who is 26th in the standings and struggling, for races. It was a little bit of a surprise that Roush Fenway threw away any chance of Bayne making the playoffs with a surprise win and not just start a third part-time car for Kenseth.
“We can always start a third car,” Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark said. “We were open when we dropped from three to two [cars]. The primary reason to do that was to focus all the engineering resources on two cars, and we had worried we had gotten spread too thin. That still is the case. We would never rule that out. Jack [Roush] would tell you he wants to be four cars next year. … For right now, we think our best path to success is laser-focusing on the two cars.”
Newmark doesn’t expect Kenseth to come in and win right away.
“We don’t harbor any misconceptions that Matt will get in the car and all of a sudden we’ll go from running 12th to leading all the laps,” Newmark said. “That’s just not realistic. But we think in motor sports … every little advantage you can get helps.
“If you look at the trajectory [of the organization], it’s been an upwards trajectory. And we think Matt can help that. Would I love to say that [leading all the laps] happens right away, I think that’s probably not our expectations.”
All the sides left the door open that Kenseth could run full time in 2019. The Wyndham Resorts sponsorship for an unspecified number of races is a multiyear deal.
“From our perspective, the focus is on ’18 and trying to lift performance, and we will really evaluate this summer and see where we go from there,” Newmark said. “There really is nothing set in stone.”
Kenseth really didn’t know what the future holds. He didn’t mind not going to races and admitted he watched more closely when this deal came to fruition.
“We were on a ski trip and we came back for lunch and the pre-race stuff was on for the [Daytona] 500, and it felt weird not being there,” Kenseth said. “It felt weird to see somebody in your car — obviously it’s not my car, but with the same paint job, the same sponsor that you helped bring there. That maybe bugged me for about five minutes. But then that was it.”
But Kenseth does miss the feeling of being part of a team and having a role in a competitive effort. Returning to Roush Fenway fills that void.
“I do look forward to going back and being more involved and people wanting you to help, wanting you to be more than just driving race cars,” Kenseth said. “I’ve always liked that stuff as much as driving race cars, whether it was in meetings or trying to figure out the structure of things or just trying to figure out how to make things better. I look forward to that.”