By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The hot rumor that got NASCAR fans talking became a reality Wednesday as Roush Fenway Raceway announced that 2003 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth will share duties with Trevor Bayne in the No. 6 Advocare Ford Fusion, beginning at Kansas Speedway May 12th.
At 46-years-old, Kenseth’s return sparked an encouraging thought about drivers past 45 being successful after what looked like his forced sabbatical diminished that possibility last season.
When the announcement was made that Erik Jones was replacing Kenseth in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota last Summer, I was both pleased and frustrated. Pleased because Jones was given the ball to represent his talents at Toyota’s elite team. Frustrated because there weren’t any quality rides in 2018 and feared he’ll be forced into retirement.
I get sponsorships are hard to come by, but it was asinine seeing a field without Kenseth. That’s when I knew the self-titled “Second Youth Movement” has taken over in terms of the starting grid, raising concerns for winning guys over 40-years-old like Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, and how much longer we’ll see them represent the sport.
During that span of pleasure and frustration, I’ve said to myself that Kenseth could be the modern-day Bobby Allison and Harry Gant, where a guy ran competitively and showed who’s boss against the young guns. Kenseth had the fire to win and wasn’t afraid to let his message come out behind the wheel, as evident with his feuds with Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano over the years.
With the high mass of retirements from popular (Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Carl Edwards) and all-time greats (Gordon and Tony Stewart) that’s carried the sport for almost two decades, the 45+ Club has become a rarity and Kenseth can still change that.
In 18 previous full-time seasons, Kenseth has only failed to score at least 15 top-10s three times (2000-01 and 2009), and three times he’s had an average finish of 16.0 or worse (2000-01 and 2008). Kenseth has finished inside the top-10 in points 13 times with his worst taking place in 2015, when a two-race suspension contributed to a career-worst 15th.
The last noteworthy factoid, out of his 39 victories, 17 of those came once he turned 40 in 2012. Performance wise, notably when he was at Gibbs, Kenseth has proven he still belongs in the sport.
While his tenure isn’t permanent, a guy like Kenseth is sorely needed in the NASCAR garage because they lack a unique top tier locker room leader to guide the self-titled “Second Youth Movement.”
Harvick and Johnson are the only 40+ drivers with championships to their resume, the rest are sub-40 with 2004 champion Kurt Busch being the oldest at 39.
I view it this way, all three 40+ year-old champions provide different characteristics. You have Harvick, who can guide the younger drivers to understand the history of the sport. Johnson brings the ambassador side and how to be a critical business thinker on and off the track. Those combinations aren’t bad to have in the garage.
Then there’s Kenseth, a driver you can depend on how to progress in a race, especially when qualifying isn’t a driver’s strong suit. He was a master of consistency and find ways to make his car become competitor when it matters most. It’s an attribute he’s never lost in his illustrious and often underappreciated career dating back to 1998.
I can’t see how his part-time return will hurt the sport like some people have expressed on social media. Kenseth isn’t kicking a young driver out of a top ride because let’s face it, Bayne has made Cup starts since 2010 and outside of his win in the 2011 Daytona 500, he’s been a disappointment.
Since running full-time in 2015, he’s never cracked the top-20 in points with two 22nd place points finishes being his best. Stats wise, Bayne has 16 career top-10s in 175 starts. In nine races, he’s yet to score a top-10 and has a 23.9 average finish. Above anything else, he’s been heavily criticized for being a road block towards his competitors.
Let’s not forget, Xfinity Series drivers Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric and Ty Majeski, and current JTG Daugherty Racing driver Chris Buescher are likely knocking on the door for a future Cup ride at Roush. Therefore, the inevitable had to happen because Bayne hasn’t delivered compared to two-time winner Ricky Stenhouse, Jr, who replaced Kenseth in 2013.
As thrilled as fans are seeing Kenseth return, I hate to bring this blemish, but it’s a proven fact. This isn’t the same Roush Fenway Racing that solidified elite status in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they’ve struggled a for a better part of the second half of the 2010s.
However, what Kenseth brings to the table in his reunion with car owner Jack Roush is experience and confidence booster.
Confidence booster? Stenhouse won two races last year, how’s a former champion going to help a team?
Kenseth piloting the No. 6 Ford may turn this team from a moving chicane to a prominent contender for top-10 finishes throughout the season. Having Kenseth may help Stenhouse, taking him under his wing and provide tips for the 30-year-old to become a well-polished driver. Kenseth’s help can also prevent Stenhouse from becoming the modern-day Jimmy Spencer, a “one season wonder.”
It does more wonders than damage, and while Bayne will have to sit out, there could be a payoff. Not sure if it’ll happen, but it may serve as a reminder that you must have a heart to be competitive, otherwise you’re done in Cup. That’s what happened to Stenhouse in Xfinity, and he won two championships before moving up to Cup full-time in 2013. Again, wishful thinking on Bayne’s part.
For now, Kenseth is back and he’s given a second chance to prove himself that a 46-year-old champion can still go on the track and join an elite club before hanging up his helmet for good.
Hall of Famers Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace had stellar performances late in their careers, much like Allison and Gant. Others like Bobby Labonte and Darrell Waltrip, they’ve either didn’t have the greatest ride or had underwhelming results that left a bad taste on fans mouths.
Kenseth can break the mold and join those Hall of Famers. If his win in the penultimate round at ISM Raceway last season showcased what he still brings to the table, then age is just a number.