It was officially announced on Wednesday that Matt Kenseth would be returning to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after having been displaced at the end of the 2017 season from his previous ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. The Wisconsin native will return to the organization at which he first began his career at the sport’s highest level in Roush Fenway Racing. The plan is for the 2003 champion to compete in the No. 6 Ford with his first race coming in the Kansas 400 on May 12th at the Kansas Speedway.
Over the course of his 20-year career at the Cup level, Kenseth has scored 39 victories along with that lone championship. In 2017 the driver earned one win in the series penultimate event at ISM Raceway in Phoenix and ended the campaign in the seventh spot of the final standings. However, the JGR organization had decided earlier in the year not to renew his contract and to replace him with young Erik Jones, which ended Kenseth’s five year stint with that team. He pulled his No. 20 Toyota into victory lane a total of fifteen times while driving for the former Washington Redskins head coach.
But the real question that immediately arises from the Wednesday announcement by the Roush group is whether or not Kenseth can actually make a difference with the team. While few details regarding his number of races were provided, it is known that Kenseth will share the No. 6 machine with its current driver, Trevor Bayne, over the remainder of the season.
After winning the 2011 Daytona 500, Bayne has struggled to find solid consistency at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series level. No other wins have been tallied with only four top-5 and eleven top-10 results having been scored in what is now his fourth season with a full-time ride at the top level.
Fellow Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has performed somewhat better. His No. 17 car earned two wins in 2017 on the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. In what is now the Mississippi native’s sixth full-time season, he has managed a total of twelve top-5 and 27 top-10 finishes.
While the Roush cars have been quite competitive on the two giant speedways that require restrictor plates, they have struggled elsewhere. Particularly, the 1.5-mile to 2-mile facilities that comprise a large percentage of the Cup Series schedule have been problematic.
The hope is that the more experienced and successful Kenseth can provide a baseline that will allow the RFR organization to fully understand how it stacks up against the competition. Interestingly, his only two known starts to this point will be on that very type of ‘cookie cutter’ track as he will compete in the points-paying race in Kansas as well as the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway later in May.
A number of fans believe that Kenseth will indeed make a difference with his new/old team. In a recent poll conducted on Twitter, I asked my followers – “Will Matt Kenseth win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in 2018?”
A total of 248 people responded to that question with 48% answering that he would indeed grab a checkered flag at some time this year.
While it’s understandable that fans may have faith in their favorite drivers, it must be noted that success in NASCAR often depends on much more than the occupant of the driver’s seat. As many races are won in the engineering department, the wind tunnel, and on pit road as are won with the steering wheel. Granted, the best engineering in the world may not be able to overcome poor driving, but the reverse can likely also be said.
As this writer sees it, here is the real value of bringing Kenseth in for Roush Fenway. First he will provide them with that baseline of understanding after having just raced for one of the sport’s top tier teams. The 46-year-old driver has proven he can still compete at the top level in a top car. So if the RFR cars are indeed up to par, he will run near the front.
Second, with his experience and his understanding of the inner workings of the race cars, Kenseth should be able to assist the team’s crew chiefs and engineers in knowing where they are lacking, if indeed they are. But it must be noted that this can be a long process. Teams don’t reach the top of NASCAR overnight.
There is no doubt in my mind at least the Roush Fenway Racing made a good move to bring Matt Kenseth back on board. He can definitely help the organization with the two major points listed above. However, unless some strategy play or twist of fate intervenes, I would find it difficult to believe that Kenseth will win a race in 2018 aside from a possible plate track effort, should he get that opportunity.
He will make a difference, maybe just not in the way some expect.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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