Through 17 races in 2012, Matt Kenseth is enjoying a dream season in the Sprint Cup series. He took the checkered flag in the Daytona 500, leads the circuit in average finish (7.6), has banked more in winnings ($4,126,773) than any other driver and currently sits at the top of the point standings. By nearly every measure Kenseth, 40, the 2003 Cup champion, has been the top driver in NASCAR over the first half of the season.
He will also soon be losing his job.
Last week Roush Fenway Racing announced that it would be severing its relationship with Kenseth (left) after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18. Kenseth has piloted the number 17 Ford for RFR since his rookie year of 2000, but this season team owner Jack Roush has had trouble finding long-term sponsorship for that car. So instead of continuing to pay a hefty salary to Kenseth, whose contract with RFR expires at season's end, Roush will elevate 24-year-old Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the '11 Nationwide champion, to Kenseth's seat in '13.
Kenseth is the first driver to be cut loose in NASCAR's so-called Silly Season (below), and the move took the garage by surprise. While Kenseth is no longer viewed as Roush's flagship driver (that distinction belongs to Carl Edwards, who finished second in the championship last season), he has 22 career wins and has qualified for the Chase seven times (which, along with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, is more than any driver other than Jimmie Johnson, who has made all eight playoffs). Kenseth's hallmarks are his ability to gradually gain speed as the laps wind down—something he does as well as anyone in the series—and to hit his marks through the turns, lap after lap after lap, with robotic consistency.
Kenseth says he already has a contract in place with a new team for 2013 and beyond but was tight-lipped about specifics last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway, where he finished seventh behind winner Brad Keselowski. All indications are that Kenseth will move to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he likely will replace Joey Logano, who is in a contract year. The much-heralded Logano, 22, has struggled in his four Cup seasons with Gibbs—he has never finished higher than 16th in the standings and is currently in that spot this season—and Kenseth would be an ideal veteran presence to team with current Gibbs drivers Denny Hamlin (age 31) and Kyle Busch (27), both proven race winners who have struggled with their consistency in the championship hunt.
"Matt would become the leader of Gibbs the moment he got there," says one veteran crew chief. "It was a head-scratcher to a lot of us that Roush and Matt would part ways when they're doing so well. You don't get a chance to win a championship very often, and this certainly won't help Matt for the rest of this year."
Indeed, lame-duck drivers typically struggle down the backstretch of the season because their crewmen, unsure of their own futures, start looking for new jobs, which in turn can cause a team to lose its edge. And in a sport where a 10th of a second per lap can be the difference between first and 15th, this can be a championship-killer.
Kenseth remains adamant that he can maintain his current pace. Minutes after the news broke that he and RFR would be parting ways, he tweeted to his 106,000-plus followers that he was as "committed as ever" to "chasing" a title. He'll need to be, especially in the heat of the Chase, when the eyes of his engineers and pit crew will begin to wander.