Friday, September 17, 2021

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Matt Kenseth Cannot Fix Roush-Fenway Alone

It’s no secret that Roush-Fenway Racing has struggled to perform well over the last several years. This week, the team announced Matt Kenseth would be returning to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and driving the No. 6 Ford Fusion. Kenseth will share seat time with the current driver of the No. 6, Trevor Bayne. According to team co-owner, Jack Roush, the move is being made to help his current drivers. “We think Matt will give us a chance to work with some of our drivers that are rookies and also with Trevor and Ricky, who will benefit from his experience.”

This announcement quickly became the biggest story of the year for the sport. Fans immediately began theorizing what this meant for RFR. The majority of comments were extremely positive and seemed to indicate they felt would put the Roush Fords back to the front of the pack.

Bayne, who won the 2011 Daytona 500 in the Wood Brothers Ford, which at the time had an affiliation with RFR, was expected to be the next big young gun star. Unfortunately, that prophecy was never fulfilled.

Bayne became the full-time driver of the No. 6 in 2015. The Knoxville, TN driver struggled in his first full-time season. Bayne scored only two top-ten finishes and had an average start of 27.9 and average finish of 25.8. Definitely not results for which RFR was hoping.

The lack of performance, however, was not limited to only Bayne. Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse also competed in RFR cars in 2015. Stenhouse only managed one top-five and three top-tens in the No. 17. One could argue that Stenhouse was still early in his career and his limited experience was the cause of the lackluster results. Stenhouse began driving full-time for RFR on 2013. Two full seasons and over 70 starts is fairly significant experience. After all, it seems if drivers are not winning races in their first two seasons, we begin asking if they are overrated and deserve to be there.

The same argument could not be made for Biffle. Biffle was a very experienced driver. As the 2015 season Biffle had racked up 19 wins, 88 top-fives, and 188 top-tens. Not to mention his impressive statistics in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series. Yet, in 2015, Biffle only managed three top-fives and four top-tens and an average finish of 20th.

The team was struggling. Carl Edwards managed two wins in 2014, but Edwards left at the end of the season to join Kenseth at Joe Gibb Racing. Biffle, who left RFR at the end of the 2016, seemed to indicate there were issues within the organization. “I just couldn’t do this anymore,” Biffle said. “I’ve been the one carrying the company banner. I’ve been the one who kept resigning. I was all of those things. But it just didn’t get any better. I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, so I decided I’d rather do something else – even if it means not driving anymore.”

Kenseth excelled at JGR. Kenseth scored a career high seven wins in 2013, his first year at JGR, and five wins in 2015, while RFR cars were floundering. So, the question becomes, was Roush struggling because the experienced drivers left or did those drivers leave because the team was struggling. I believe it is the latter.

Drivers would not leave an organization if they felt they had a chance to win. JGR was a much higher performing organization and offered these drivers a significantly higher chance of winning races and possibly championships. Biffle chose to leave the sport instead of driving mediocre equipment.

In 2017 performance did improve slightly for Stenhouse as he managed two wins on restrictor plate tracks and nine top-ten finishes. Not stellar, but a definite improvement. Even with the two wins, however, Stenhouse only 56 laps the entire season, a strong indicator that the overall performance was still not there.

Bayne, on the other hand, was still struggling again scoring just two top-fives and six top-tens leading zero laps.

2018 has not shown to be any better. Stenhouse has one top-five with one top-ten, while Bayne has zero.

So, is it lack of driver talent or car performance? I believe it is a combination of the two. The cars are definitely not where they need to be. Something needs to fundamentally change within the organization. Whether it is lack of money or simply having the wrong people, something needs to change on the Engineering side of things.

The drivers have definitely not lived up to expectations. Not only has there been a lack of results, there also seems to be a lot of damaged race cars.

Kenseth is a very talented race car driver and I believe the addition of Kenseth and the addition of sponsorship money from Wyndham Rewards will definitely garner some improvements, but these two items alone will not fix the entire issue. There will need to be additional changes and additions. Perhaps Kenseth will facilitate some of those changes, but it will be a long-term fix.

Jack Roush seemed to elude to this possibility, “We see a potential for Matt being involved with the company and race team past his driving.  We haven’t talked much about that, but we certainly feel like he’s come home to us.  He’s a significant part of the history and legacy, as is Mark.  We have two great drivers and great people that have helped us build this thing and we’d like to keep them involved if we can going forward at some level.”

I will be very surprised if we see the No. 6 competing consistently in the top-ten immediately. Kenseth will make his debut in the No. 6 on May 12 at Kansas Speedway.

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