NASCAR 2018 roundtable on Matt Kenseth and his return to the Cup series

NASCAR


Matt Kenseth‘s so-called retirement is over. Kenseth, who lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2017 season, struck a deal with Roush Fenway Racing on April 25. The 2003 Cup champ will drive select races, starting this weekend at Kansas Speedway (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, FS1).

Was joining RFR, where his career began, the right move? What can we expect him to achieve in the No. 6 car, which is normally driven by Trevor Bayne? Our experts weigh in.

Is it a good move for Kenseth, 46, to return to Cup racing?

Mike Clay, ESPN: Absolutely. I think we were all pretty shocked that Kenseth wasn’t returning in 2018, especially considering it didn’t appear he had lost a step. Kenseth finished top-seven in points in 2016 and 2017 and has been top-seven in seven of the past nine years. Yes, 2017 was his worst season in a while, but he still won a race and led more than 400 laps.

Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Yes, it’s a good move for Kenseth because I believe he needs closure in terms of the way things ended for him last year, and he certainly deserves to retire on his own accord. His victory in Phoenix last fall was proof he still has ability, but it was also apparent that he didn’t have opportunities. It was more of a surrender. Kenseth is now positioned to contribute once again to an organization that gave him his first opportunity and helped him capture the Cup championship. He will contribute.

Ryan McGee, ESPN senior writer: I never thought it was a good move for him to be gone! There is a natural curve to racing careers, and it always becomes apparent, no matter how sad it might be, when it’s time for a guy to move on. Kenseth was nowhere close to the exit end of his curve when he was shown the door last year.

Alisha Miller, ESPN.com: The better question would be, why would anyone want Kenseth to be done with NASCAR? He’s got racing in his blood, going back to his short-track days, and any Cup champion (2003) should be allowed the right to end his career on his terms. Plus, Kyle Busch said in November 2017 that, “it’s just I guess the industry didn’t see Matt Kenseth as their driver, and that’s really, really unfortunate because I love the guy and have raced with respect for him for a long, long time and will forever respect him for what he’s done for the sport.” Sweeter words have never been spoken out of Kyle’s mouth about a competitor, am I right?

Scott Page, Jayski editor: Yes. The Cup champion gets the opportunity to come back into the sport for a while longer after being forced out last year. As long as he’s enjoying it and the results are there, it’s a positive for him, the team and the sponsors.

Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: This is a good move for Kenseth because it allows him to finish his career more on his own terms. He most likely can race for as long as he wants and then call it a career. The question will be how long will he want to race for Roush Fenway? The answer will come with how he performs.

Marty Smith, ESPN: It’s a great move. Every athlete wants to retire on his or her own terms — not have it decided for them by corporate dollars or politics. Very few get to choose. Kenseth wasn’t ready to hang it up. He was hurt and disappointed. Now he can make those decisions. I’m thrilled for him.

Scott Symmes, ESPN.com: I don’t see a big downside for Kenseth, who was never comfortable using the “R” word (retire) last season. He still wants to race, and this opportunity allows his career to resume in familiar surroundings. It’s an even better move for Roush Fenway Racing. The No. 6 program is stuck in a rut (Bayne is 29th in points), so it can’t hurt to have the input — and talent — of a 39-time Cup winner.

Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: I like the move, not so much from an on-track standpoint but rather it gives Roush Fenway Racing a measuring stick and an experienced hand to figure out what could be done to make the team more competitive. It also opens the door for Kenseth to take a leadership or advisory role with the team down the road.

What are your expectations for Kenseth?

Clay: Expectations are fairly high. Without throwing anyone under the bus, recent history has shown that driver skill still matters and can make an underperforming car competitive. You’d be hard-pressed to convince me Kenseth is not one of the 16 best drivers on the circuit right now. He should be competing full time for a playoff berth — not sharing a ride.

Craven: I visited with Kenseth last week, and he looked great. He’s been training and maintained great condition. He is very, very determined. He will run between eighth and 15th, which would be a great boost to that race team.

McGee: Tempered is the best word I can come up with. It’s no secret that Roush Fenway is behind, but what’s the best way for them to turn it around? They need stability. They need a baseline and a foundation of consistency upon which to get on with their reconstruction. Stability and consistency and baselines … those are all Kenseth specialties. So no, I don’t expect him to start winning races in bunches. The team isn’t capable of that yet, and that’s OK because that’s not what the team needs him to do. If he does his job, then that will happen for RFR sooner than later.

Miller: Middle-of-the-road expectations. Surely Kenseth’s expertise and experience will come into play when he gets behind the wheel of the No. 6, but there will likely be an adjustment period to the grind of being in a stock car again and to the 2018 Roush Fenway setup and equipment.

Page: I don’t think we will see dramatic improvements in the team overnight, but it’s hard to imagine that the No. 6 team won’t be close to the front more often. By August, I think it can be running consistently better with both him and Bayne. The feedback and suggestions that Kenseth can provide will be invaluable to the entire Roush organization.

Pockrass: In races where he is running at the finish, Roush Fenway’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is averaging a 17th-place run. Reasonable expectations for Kenseth then would be to run somewhere between 10th to 15th with the occasional top-10. The issue for Roush Fenway has been consistency. That likely won’t change with Kenseth behind the wheel, at least for the immediate future.

Smith: In the short term: to improve Roush Fenway Racing by offering Hall of Fame expertise to a young stable. In the long term: to race full time again, and prove some people wrong.

Symmes: Kenseth will provide steady, mistake-free performances and at times will make his presence felt in the top 10. Can he win? Barring something fluky like a fuel-mileage race, probably not. A victory would be a substantial leap for the No. 6 team, which has had only two top-5s in the past 47 races.

Willis: Although Kenseth was a top-10 driver in points last year, he’ll be well served to just keep it in the top 20 to start. But with some races under his belt, I could see him running in the eighth-to-12th range. Where Kenseth’s impact will really be felt, however, is where we see Stenhouse running.



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