Posted: 3:26 pm Wednesday, April 25th, 2018
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Roush Fenway Racing and Matt Kenseth grabbed the news cycle by the horns this week, announcing that the champion driver will return to the organization that brought him into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Kenseth will drive an unspecified number of races in the team’s No. 6 Ford Fusion, splitting time with Trevor Bayne. Wyndham Hotels and Resorts will sponsor Kenseth in at least some races. Bayne will continue to run the races sponsored by Advocare.
Team president Steve Newmark and team owner Jack Roush both said that Kenseth is coming back to evaluate the state of their mediocre program and mentor Bayne, No. 17 driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and development shoe Ty Majeski. Somewhere Greg Biffle is going, “What am I, chopped liver?”
Well Biffle couldn’t do that, as he raced several years at RFR after Kenseth departed for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. Biffle only lasted two seasons as the team’s elder, after star Carl Edwards left for JGR in 2015. Biffle struggled mightily in 2015 and 2016, before he and the team parted ways. He hasn’t driven in NASCAR since.
When Mark Martin, the former No. 6 RFR driver who flanked Kenseth and sang his praises at Wednesday’s announcement, left RFR in 2007, Biffle was tabbed as the team’s captain. Kenseth openly said back then that he didn’t want the mentor role for youngsters David Ragan and Edwards. But now Kenseth returns to the team that carried him to his and their first championship in 2003 and the 2009 and 2012 Daytona 500s. After Martin, Kenseth is RFR’s second best driver in its 30-year NASCAR history.
Roush said that Kenseth and Martin are the two best drivers he has employed at finding speed in a racecar, a talent Kenseth will need. RFR’s Cup cars are 19th (Stenhouse Jr.) and 26th (Bayne) in the standings this year. RFR’s last top 10 points finish was Carl Edwards (9th) in 2014. RFR’s last non-plate race win was with Edwards in 2014 (Sonoma) and Edwards also had their last oval win that year (Bristol). The organization’s last win on a 1.5-mile track…the layout that makes most of the NASCAR schedule…was in 2012 at Kansas. And that was with Kenseth.
This decision by RFR has to do with money, but not entirely. Kenseth will command a bigger salary than Bayne, but he also brings a sponsor. Kenseth’s return to supplant a full-time driver is more an indictment on Bayne. Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 and then ran part-time in Cup thru 2014 with then-Roush satellite team Wood Brothers Racing. He ran full-time in the Xfinity Series with not much to show for it in 2013 and 2014 for Roush. But Bayne had the backing and the youth to bring Advocare up with him. Bayne hasn’t done a bit to help stop the downslide in performance at RFR.
13 of Bayne’s career 16 top 10 finishes have come in his full-time tenure in Cup. He has none this year and has caused some puzzling wrecks and been quite a bit slower than Stenhouse Jr. in 2018. His career average finish is 23.2 and his best points finish is 22nd. He was 26th in 2017. The Roush program has found some speed in the last 18 months, but that hasn’t lifted Bayne at all. Stenhouse Jr. won races at Talladega and Daytona and managed to advance to the second round of the playoffs last year.
Newmark said that Bayne’s first reaction to this demotion was that he wanted to remain full-time.
Kenseth’s commitment to the team is for as long as he wants to drive, Newmark said. So this means it’s not a temporary stop gap to open the door again for Bayne. In fact, Newmark said he hopes this change jumpstarts the whole team, including Bayne. But Newmark said he hoped it jumpstarted Bayne’s career…not necessarily his future at Roush.
RFR had Chris Buescher under contract and won the 2015 NXS championship with him, but relented on putting him in the No. 6 car and “leased” him out to JTG-Daugherty Racing. Now he’s vested there. Kenseth, meanwhile, lost his seat at JGR to young sophomore driver Erik Jones. Ironically, now the 27-year-old Bayne will lose seat time to 46-year-old Kenseth and his 39 MENCS wins. Funny how the world turns.
Kenseth said he never retired – he was forced out and still wanted to drive, if the situation was right. Kenseth’s return says that he sees something in RFR that Biffle didn’t see and couldn’t achieve. Kenseth sees something at RFR that exceeds what Bayne and Stenhouse Jr. have been able to do. And Roush and Newmark see in Kenseth a veteran edge that they have woefully lacked. Performance analytics have not favored Matt Kenseth in recent years (especially in 2017), so RFR’s choice of a perceived backsliding Kenseth over the young and struggling Bayne says a lot about both drivers.
Hear the latest “Five to Go” NASCAR podcast with Doug, Eric Von Haessler, and Dan Elliott, as they discuss the Kenseth move and several other big NASCAR stories. Subscribe on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/five-to-go/id1296862013