CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Blue skies poked through the gray clouds that had hung over the city for most of two days, delivering rain, wind and gloom.
Inside the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday morning, the forecast also was about to change for one Cup team.
Matt Kenseth is back in NASCAR to help turnaround Roush Fenway Racing.
“It’s an interesting challenge for me and not just being a driver,’’ said Kenseth, who has 39 career Cup victories to rank 20th on the all-time list. “I hope I can be much more to the organization, and I’m hoping that there are a lot of different ways I can help in.’’
An organization that once dominated — Roush won 15 races and placed five cars in the top 10 in points in 2005 — has struggled to be competitive and retain drivers.
Kenseth left after the 2012 season. Carl Edwards departed after 2014. Greg Biffle left after 2016 because there wasn’t enough sponsorship to fund a car.
While Wednesday was a day for Roush Fenway Racing to celebrate and look toward the future, there is much work to do for an organization that has one top-10 finish between Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne.
“We have enough resources to fix any number of things but what is very difficult to discern with a young driver lineup like we have is what is most important,’’ Tommy Wheeler, operations director at Roush Fenway Racing, told NBC Sports. “What is going to be the most impactful today to make the car faster?’’
Bayne likely wouldn’t be sharing the No. 6 the rest of the year with Kenseth if his team’s performance hadn’t dipped.
Bayne has run in the top 15 in 10.5 percent of the laps run this season (Stenhouse is at 39.9 percent). Bayne’s average finish is 23.9 — compared to 19.5 last year — and he ranks 25th in the series in average running position (23.0).
“Really, when we look at last year, (Bayne’s team) and (Stenhouse’s team) were fairly close in overall performance, the 17 (of Stenhouse) was certainly better and certainly that split got greater this year and that’s just … not the direction we’re wanting to continue down,’’ Wheeler told NBC Sports.
Kenseth understands the challenge he’ll face. After winning races in six of the past seven seasons, the focus is different.
“I don’t think any of us expect to come out and win races,’’ Kenseth said. “That would be great if you could, and I think we expect to eventually. I don’t think that the summer and a part-time schedule that we expect to win, but I do feel like the cars are much more competitive, I feel like they’re on the right track.’’
Wheeler said the work starts now. The team will integrate Kenseth in all that it is doing. Kenseth noted that he’s been watching races more closely and studying notes “the last few weeks” as the deal was put together.
As for why this wasn’t done at the start of the year when Kenseth was available, car owner Jack Roush had a simple answer.
“I still had a little bit of a rawness over the fact that he left me when he did,’’ Roush said. “We had another championship out there, I thought, that we could have had in short order. I missed that, so it took me a little while to get over it.”
With the performance down this year, Roush needed to act quickly.
Mark Martin, who has served in a consultant-type role since the playoffs last year, said what Kenseth can help the team with could make a significant impact for Stenhouse — who had three sponsors extend deals with the team last week.
“I have hopes (of the team winning) because I know the tools are there at the organization, I know the people are there at the organization,’’ Martin said. “Really, what’s preventing them right now is a little bit of enthusiasm and direction to be able to use those tools and spend that time on the part that bears fruit.
“You do that and put that in Ricky Stenhouse’s hands, he’ll get it done. Right now, Ricky is just trying too freaking hard. I think if we could get him in a little faster race car, I would hope that maybe he could tune it down. He’s just driving so hard right now, it’s hard to watch for me. I just feel like we have all the tools, we just still don’t have the cars fast enough inherently.’’
Stenhouse has had to go to a backup car in three of the first nine races because of accidents during practice.
Stenhouse, who made the playoffs last year, will be the team’s only driver eligible for the playoffs since it seems unlikely NASCAR would grant a waiver for Bayne or Kenseth if they’re not running the full season because of a team decision.
For Stenhouse to make the playoffs and be a factor, the organization must be better at the 1.5-mile tracks that play a key role in the Cup season. It’s no coincidence that Kenseth will make his debut May 12 at Kansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile speedway and be back in the car for the May 19 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, another 1.5-mile track.
“We’ve got to perform on the mile-and-a half tracks or we’re going to be disappointed with our end-of-the year results,’’ Wheeler told NBC Sports. “Making the playoffs was really our goal last year. Well, now it’s about making the playoffs and making a strong run, validating that we deserve to be there and that we’re going to be competitive on these mile-and-a-half tracks that eat up so much of the schedule.’’
The rest of the driver schedule for the No. 6 car is to be worked out between Bayne, Kenseth and sponsor obligations.
That’s just a small part of the work ahead for Kenseth.
His biggest task is if he can help change Roush Fenway Racing’s fortunes and return the team to sunnier days?
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