Matt Kenseth tries to keep focus amid split from his team

awincze@herald-leader.comJune 29, 2012 

SPARTA — Matt Kenseth just wanted to get into his car.

There was still about an hour to go before the first practice for Saturday's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. But before the current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader and former champion could start the business of getting his No. 17 Ford to maintain a competitive advantage, Kenseth spent a chunk of Friday morning engaged in the off-track work that will likely play a big hand in determining whether or not he stays atop the standings for the duration.

Ever since the bombshell announcement earlier this week that Kenseth was leaving Roush Fenway Racing at season's end, the 2003 series champion has been trying to keep his focus while juggling the inevitable questions about why the 40-year-old is departing the team he has been with the entirety of his Cup career.

Kenseth, who was in the final year of his contract with Roush, has not yet revealed which team he will join in 2013 but speculation has him becoming the newest member of Joe Gibbs Racing, possibly replacing Joey Logano in the No. 20 Home Depot. Defending Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will take over Kenseth's spot at Roush next year.

The professional breakup between Kenseth and owner Jack Roush after nearly 15 years together would have been stunning news to digest at any turn, never mind when there are still 20 races to go in the season and a championship on the line.

Saturday's 267-lap journey around the Sparta oval will be the first test as to how well Kenseth can keep himself and his soon-to-be former team from letting the 800-pound gorilla in the room crush what could be a storybook ending to one of NASCAR's longest running partnerships.

"For the rest of the season it's only a distraction if we let it," Kenseth said Friday. "I think it's totally up to me and the race team how we handle all this going forward. Certainly I think this is the toughest weekend without a doubt. I think once it dies down a bit, we'll be just fine here.

"We've got a lot of racing left to do this year and we're all going to give it 100 percent and try and finish on a strong note."

Kenseth is moving on from an owner and team for which he has won 22 Cup races, a championship, and two Daytona 500s.

The fact fellow driver Clint Bowyer preceded Kenseth in Friday's news conference schedule could not have been scripted better. After all, Bowyer knows a thing or two about trying to keep a team on course despite a mid-stream shift.

Bowyer announced before season's end in 2011 that he was leaving Richard Childress Racing to drive for Owensboro-native Michael Waltrip this year, a move that is looking even more fortuitous following Bowyer's triumph at Sonoma last weekend.

Though Bowyer, currently seventh in the standings, hasn't missed a beat with his new squad, he readily admits the toll last year took on his former team — something that was evident in the career-high six DNFs he posted in 2011.

"For us it was kind of catastrophic to be honest," Bowyer said. "I mean, it's hard to keep everybody going. Everybody sees the end of the road and I guess the light at the end of the tunnel. For me it was very hard to keep that momentum going ... but we weren't in Chase contention like Matt is.

"Matt's a champion and he'll see this thing through the end."

Challenging as Kentucky Speedway can be, its 1.5-mile configuration could be as good a spot as any for Kenseth to maintain his on-track mojo in the face of outside turmoil.

Roush cars in general have long been notoriously strong at intermediate tracks. Indeed, the only time Kenseth has failed to finish in the top 10 at a 1.5-mile oval thus far in 2012 was at Las Vegas when he wrecked late on the final restart while battling for a top-three finish and ended up 22nd.

"I really like (Kentucky) and it is really challenging for the drivers and teams to get the cars set up here," Kenseth said. "It's just business as usual around the track. There is no incentive for any of us to not do that, everybody wants to do the best they can."

Neither Kenseth nor Roush have singled out one incident that led the former's decision. While Kenseth tries to finish what he started, Roush expressed regret that the lone Cup champ in his current stable has decided it's in his best interest to end his career elsewhere.

"I will say I was surprised when I learned he would not be signing with us," Roush said. "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."

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.

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