SPARTA, Ky. — There was more than a suggestion of regret in Jack Roush’s voice and manner as he addressed reporters in the wake of Matt Kenseth’s impending departure from Roush Fenway Racing.
Roush also indicated that, had he focused as much on the business side of his operation as he routinely does on the competitive side, Kenseth’s exodus to a rival NASCAR Sprint Cup team might have been averted.
When Kenseth asked for a meeting with Roush and told his owner of 13 years that he was leaving at the end of the 2012 season, the news came as a shock to the owner who on several occasions had referred to the 2003 Cup champion as a “cornerstone” of his organization.
“It was a surprise and was a disappointment,” Roush told a handful of reporters after a general question-and-answer session with the media Friday at Kentucky Speedway. “There’s just not a lot I can say. Certainly, Matt’s a friend, and I’m not mad at Matt.
“I’m not mad at my own organization for the fact that they interacted with Matt, and we didn’t get to a satisfactory result. This sport has taken on many of the vestiges of big-time stick-and-ball sports, and so, historically, typically, teams move around their priorities, and athletes move around. So I guess this is the unavoidable consequence of the big-business aspect of what we do.”
With Kenseth leading the Cup points, performance clearly wasn’t the tipping point in his decision to leave Roush.
“Technology, performance and the team and the people — the engineers and the support group we’ve got around him — have never been referenced in any concern he’s expressed to me,” Roush asserted.
So was money the deciding factor?
“I can’t go there — I won’t go there,” Roush said.
Until recently, Kenseth was considered a lifer with Roush Fenway, but that changed within the last few weeks.
“If I had been as vigilant and diligent and interested in that side of the business as I am on finding why a fuel pump broke or why a connecting rod bearing failed or how we could get the next pound of downforce – if I had been taking care of the business side of the business as hard as I tried to take care of the technical side, I might have been able to stop that,” Roush said.
Kenseth’s defection doesn’t mean Roush won’t try to win a championship with his long-time driver, if that’s in the cards.
“We’re going to go out and win a championship if we can,” Roush said. “Of course, he’s going to have to beat the other two Roush Fenway cars (of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards), hopefully, as well as the rest of the field. But if things fall so that Matt has the hot hand, we’ll try to win the championship with him and wish him well — but not the very best of luck going forward.”
As far as Kenseth’s next destination goes, Roush referred to Kenseth going to the “dark side,” fueling rampant speculation that Kenseth has signed with Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields Toyotas. Roush’s aversion to certain foreign manufacturers is well-known. One oft-heard story tells of the car owner paying an employee who drove a Japanese-made car to work in yen.
“Matt and I and I think everybody on the team . . . the friendship part will survive,” Roush said. “I have not lost respect for Matt, and I hope he hasn’t for me. I won’t have the same sense of wishing for his success on the race track next year that I will for the balance of this year and have in the past.
“He will, from my point of view, be moving to the dark side. We will get through that. Personally, we will be fine.”
STENHOUSE TO BE PAIRED WITH VETERAN FENNIG
Roush left little doubt that reigning NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who succeeds Kenseth in the No. 17 Ford next year, will work with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig and the rest of the current 17 team.
“As far as crew chiefs go, the 17 program is a championship level program, and for Ricky to have all the guidance and expertise and support that Jimmy Fennig and the guys can provide is essential,” Roush told the NASCAR Wire Service. “We will have a full-time Nationwide program next year, and the plan is now for Trevor (Bayne) to be the driver for that program, although that has not been announced — and I am not announcing it here today — but that’s our plan.
“In the same vein, we have a championship-level Nationwide program in place with Mike Kelley (Stenhouse’s current Nationwide crew chief) and my hope is to keep that together so that we can compete effectively toward a (Nationwide) championship with Ricky this year but also be able to do the same thing with Trevor next year.”