This one is going to take some getting used to.
Matt Kenseth's first start at NASCAR's highest level was in 1998 at Dover, where he drove a No. 98 car in relief of Bill Elliott, whose father had passed away. The sixth-place effort turned in by the Wisconsin native that Sunday ranked as the best debut by a Cup newcomer since Rusty Wallace had finished second in Atlanta 18 years earlier. In every event that Kenseth has run since in what is now Sprint Cup, all 451 of them entering Saturday night's race at Kentucky Speedway, he has been behind the wheel of the No. 17.
It's as much a part of him as his steady driving style or his dry sense of humor, and it's going to be very odd seeing him drive anything else -- although that will be the case next season, given the news Tuesday that the 2003 champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner will part ways with Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the year. Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., as much a star in the making as Kenseth was in that first race at Dover all those years ago, will step into the No. 17 next season, and his predecessor will move on to a new organization that's yet to be determined.
This isn't a total shock. For some time now, Roush Fenway has had too many good drivers and not enough cars and sponsors, and the team needed to do something to ensure that Stenhouse would stay in the fold. Kenseth is in a contract year, and even for him, he's been exceedingly tight-lipped when asked about his status. His sponsorship situation was patchwork at best, forcing Roush Fenway to occasionally fund the car on its own. There are other drivers out there in the final years of their contracts, and cars with sponsorship that would be available should teams decide to take action. Kenseth, who would be an upgrade almost anywhere he goes, wrote on Twitter that he has nothing yet to announce for 2013. But it's difficult to believe a driver as smart as he is would make such a move without a plan.
Regardless, it's going to be very strange to see Kenseth paired with another car number, given how much personal investment he's poured into the No. 17. No, he hasn't been synonymous with any certain sponsor, and he hasn't worn the same color firesuit for his entire stint with owner Jack Roush. But other than Mark Martin, who put Roush's team on the map and gave it year-in, year-out credibility, there's been no more important driver to the organization. It was Kenseth who brought Roush his first premier-series championship after years of painfully close calls, and six years later he delivered the team's first victory in the Daytona 500.
"It's the end of an incredible run between Jack and Matt, one that has spanned 15 years, which in his day and age of professional sports is much longer than you'd expect," said Roush Fenway president Steve Newmark. "So we're proud of everything that's been accomplished there."
But it all goes much deeper than the time span. Even after Kenseth leaves, his fingerprints will be all over his former organization. Robbie Reiser, the Roush Fenway general manager often credited with helping to build the team into the three-headed monster it is now, came up with Kenseth on the Wisconsin late-model circuit and broke through first as the driver's car owner, and later as a championship-winning crew chief. And then there's Kenseth himself, who often has been given the latitude to mold the No. 17 team as he sees fit, making crew chief changes and maintaining a degree of supervision over that program that not all elite drivers have.
Yes, it's going to be an odd transition, and not just because of the car number -- although if you remember a press release touting a new associate sponsor for this season, one that allegedly entailed a new numeral on the side of Kenseth's vehicle, it did not sit well with the masses. Yes, Tony Stewart left the No. 20. Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. walked away from the No. 8. But neither of those drivers were in those cars for as long as Kenseth has been in the No. 17. Stewart may have won a pair of championships in his former ride, but until he became an owner, he couldn't match Kenseth's de facto management role. Earnhardt had the level of personal investment at Dale Earnhardt Inc. but couldn't match his friend's results on the race track.
Kenseth did it all. He didn't just drive the No. 17; when times were tough, he bled over it. Roush might have owned the vehicle, but no one held more of a sense of ownership in it than Kenseth. When he faced struggles like those that followed his back-to-back wins at Daytona and Fontana to open the 2009 season, he seemed to take them personally. When it came time to shuffle personnel to try and get things back on track, Kenseth played an active role in shaping the direction of the program. Some crew chief moves -- and there were a few of them back then, until Jimmy Fennig arrived from the research and development department to straighten everything out -- were solely the driver's call.
Surely, Kenseth will bring that same level of involvement to whatever organization becomes his next home. His sudden availability only will tighten the microscope around drivers like Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger, who are in contract years at Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing, respectively. This isn't Kurt Busch, burning bridges when no others are available. This is a championship-caliber driver with a good reputation and a strong work ethic who would fit in well at a number of places and will absolutely land on his feet.
And what an opportunity for Stenhouse, who finished 11th in his Sprint Cup debut two years ago and could be positioned to make the biggest impact by a rookie since Jimmie Johnson vied for the championship in 2002.
All that, though, is still to come. There remains half a season for Kenseth to complete at Roush Fenway, with the goal of winning one more championship for his current organization before he moves on to whatever comes next. When he does, it will surely be a bittersweet farewell for a driver whose impact on the No. 17 car goes well beyond race victories and longevity. Without him, the vehicle just won't feel the same.
Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer