CHARLOTTE, N.C. (McClatchy) — All the buildup finally bubbled over Wednesday morning at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the moment when the rumors became reality.
Matt Kenseth will indeed make his NASCAR return.
Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champion, announced that he will be joining Roush Fenway Racing on a part-time basis for the remainder of the 2018 season, splitting time in the No. 6 car with current driver Trevor Bayne. Kenseth’s last race was the 2017 season finale at Homestead in November.
But what does Kenseth’s return really mean for NASCAR, his fans, and RFR? We tried to break it down here:
— 1. Why would Kenseth come back now?
This is probably the easiest question to answer — and truthfully, perhaps the only one we have a complete answer to. Kenseth said repeatedly at the end of last season that it was never his intention to retire. Rather, he just couldn’t find a ride that fit and so his career would sort of just fizzle out. Now those circumstances have changed.
Kenseth’s past with Roush — he drove for the team from 2001 through 2012 — contributed to his decision to come back under these circumstances, but really this is something Kenseth has wanted for a while now.
“If it was just strictly about driving, I probably would have been at Daytona driving something,” Kenseth said. “It’s more about the rest of it. It’s more about coming here and trying to help, and coming to see what the further out future looks like for me three, four, five years down the road.”
— 2. Why would Roush Fenway want Kenseth back now?
Couple of reasons here. First, the respect and adoration that team owner Jack Roush has for Kenseth is practically unmatched — to say Roush thinks of Kenseth like a son would be understating it. Kenseth, along with Hall of Famer Mark Martin, is one of the most successful drivers Roush has ever had. That he and Roush connected so strongly while working together for a decade is no surprise.
But there still has to be a performance element to this decision, and there is. Bayne, the incumbent driver of the No. 6, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire recently. He’s 26th in the points standings, and his best finish was a very average 12th at Texas. Those aren’t numbers that scream success.
What Kenseth’s job will be, then, is to mentor Bayne and try to help the company improve as a whole. Roush said repeatedly on Wednesday that Kenseth is terrific at, “finding the speed in his car” — if he can do that while also teaching Bayne, it could give RFR a boost as an entire organization.
— 3. Will fans in Charlotte get to see Kenseth race this season?
They will, although we don’t yet know how many times. Kenseth confirmed Wednesday that he will compete in the All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 19 (by virtue of his victory at Phoenix in 2017, he qualifies). But as for the Coca-Cola 600 or the fall playoff race? It’s hard to say yet. The team said it is still figuring out which races Kenseth will run and which Bayne will run, but Charlotte-area NASCAR fans will at least get to see Kenseth in person one more time before his career ends.
— 4. What are realistic expectations for Kenseth for the rest of this year?
Based on Kenseth’s championship pedigree, the immediate question on Wednesday was: Will Kenseth try to make the playoffs this season? NASCAR rules would make that difficult to accomplish — he’d have to not only win a race, but also finish in the top 30 in points (and he’s already nine races behind) — so that shouldn’t be the expectation.
Instead, look for Kenseth to really mentor Bayne, but also Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Stenhouse is closer to competing on a race-to-race basis than Bayne is, and if Kenseth can show him how to get even a little bit more out of his car, it could mean the difference between making or missing the playoffs. Of course, Kenseth will still try to win and run well when he’s driving, but that really isn’t the priority for him or the team right now. He even said so himself.
“I feel like I can be a real asset in a lot of different ways besides just driving,” Kenseth said. “I hope that turns out to be true, so it’s as much about that as it is driving the race cars.”
— 5. What happens to Kenseth after the 2018 season?
This is the wild card. We don’t really know what happens to Kenseth after 2018. Does he finally retire? Does he supplant Bayne as the full-time driver of the No. 6 car? Does he come back for another part-time season in 2019? Does Roush Fenway start a third team for him? Or is it time for Kenseth to move into more of a behind-the-scenes, executive sort of role?
Based on comments from Kenseth, Roush, and team president Steve Newmark, we can speculate a trajectory of sorts. Kenseth will finish this season part-time with Bayne, and if he still has the desire to race in 2019 and beyond, then the team will sort something out — whether that’s another part-time deal or a third team — to accommodate him. Then, whenever his driving days are finally over, he’ll remain with Roush Fenway in some capacity. Maybe that’s working on the cars and trying to squeeze the speed out of them, or maybe it’s something on the sponsorship side, or maybe it’s even a job in the front office as a team executive.
The point is, the only guarantee we have as far as Kenseth is concerned is that he’ll be around part-time in 2018. After that, it’s pretty much up to him to decide what he wants — and the rest of us will just have to wait and see.
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