Losing a NASCAR driver of Matt Kenseth's stature would be a significant blow to any team, and Jack Roush made no bones about that harsh reality when he spoke with the media Friday at Kentucky Speedway.
But Roush apparently didn't even see Kenseth's departure coming.
"I will say that I was as surprised as most of you must have been when I learned that he would not be signing with us to go forward," Roush said. "It was a surprise and I had no idea that we were at that point."
Roush even went as far to say that if he hadn't been so focused on the technical side of his operation, he doesn't think Kenseth would have ever agreed to leave what has essentially been the only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team he's ever driven for.
In other words, Roush apparently felt Kenseth's concerns could have been easily resolved if the team owner knew the issues existed – whatever those may have been (neither he nor Kenseth is saying). It's worth noting Roush doesn't include the business side among his chief responsibilities.
"If I had been taking care of the business side of the business as hard as I tried to take care of the technical side, I might have been able to stop that," Roush said.
The team owner wouldn't get specific as to why Kenseth chose to leave, but he did say not being able to find a full-time sponsor for the No. 17 car played no part in the decision. And despite not having primary sponsorship for Kenseth, Roush was fully committed to running and funding the 17 team out of his own pocket if that was what it took.
"Certainly, there was not a sponsorship reason why Matt's future with Roush Fenway was in doubt, before or during negotiations," Roush said.
While Roush wouldn't reveal where Kenseth is headed (likely Joe Gibbs Racing), he did say the driver will be "moving to the dark side." In Roush's mind, that might mean a Toyota-backed team.
Kenseth will certainly be missed at RFR, as he was instrumental in the continued prosperity the three-car team has experienced since Roush brought him aboard fulltime prior to the 2000 season. After all, it was Kenseth who delivered Roush his first Sprint Cup championship and is the only RFR driver to have won the Daytona 500.
But even amid the disbelief, it isn't all doom and gloom for Roush Fenway Racing, as there is optimism as to what Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is going to bring to the team. Roush has great experience with over the years seeing veteran drivers depart the organization and then replacing them with a young and talented up-and-comer who is just biting at the chance to drive for a team with resources of RFR.
"We have had a lot of success with young drivers that were not established and have not made it our habit to go out and try to court somebody else's driver to see if we could improve our prospects by gaining somebody else's loss," Roush said.
While no one will confuse Stenhouse Jr. for the 2003 Sprint Cup champion at this point, there is no doubt that Stenhouse Jr. possesses a vast amount of talent and should eventually have success in Cup. The consensus among RFR is that in the long run, Stenhouse Jr.'s promotion to a Cup ride could prove big dividends down the road for the entire team.
"I think that he can drive a race car as well and as aggressively as anyone I have ever raced against," Carl Edwards said Friday. "... I think he can bring a lot to the whole Cup program with a lot of new energy and really he is just a fun guy to be around. I think it will be a good time."
In other Roush-related news, the team owner said Stenhouse Jr. is likely to drive a No. 17 car next season – not a No. 6 – and would be teamed with crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who is Kenseth's current crew chief.
Trevor Bayne will likely run a full-time Nationwide Series effort for Roush in 2013 and could potentially be paired with current Stenhouse Jr. crew chief Mike Kelley.