In 1998, Mark Martin scored the first All-Star Race victory for Jack Roush. Two decades later, Matt Kenseth will pay tribute with a special paint scheme.
The No. 6 Ford will sport the iconic black, red, orange and yellow livery that Martin drove to the win that year.
“Our paint scheme this week is a nod to Jack’s first All-Star win in 1998 with Mark,” Kenseth said in a release. “Obviously those two have meant so much to my career, and it’s cool to honor both of them this weekend.”
Roush went to victory lane three more times, including another win for Martin in 2005.
But it is that first win that sticks in Martin’s mind.
“The 1998 All-Star Race was really cool for me,” Martin said. “We were running third with two laps to go and passed Bobby Labonte coming off of (Turn 4) for the white flag. Jeff Gordon was gone up front and about the time I passed Bobby, Jeff pulled over to the inside and slowed. I was like, ‘Wow!’ All of the sudden, we were in the lead. We had no idea we were going to win the race, and it happened just that quickly. Those can be some of the best wins, because you just never see it coming.”
Kenseth, who made his first start in the All-Star Race in 2000, added to Roush’s total in 2004. In 18 consecutive appearances, he has scored seven top fives and 12 top-10s.
Carl Edwards earned Roush’s fourth and most recent victory in 2011.
“The All-Star Race has gone through a lot of changes over the years,” said Kenseth. “But the addition of the restrictor plate may be the biggest. I honestly don’t know what to expect other than the cars will be slower. We’ll just have to see how it plays out this weekend.”
“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.
“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?
JGR has been partnered with Toyota since 2008 when it switched from Chevrolet.
Since then JGR has one Cup championship (Busch, 2015) and 93 wins in Cup. It also has two Xfinity championships. In that time, Toyota has won the Cup manufacturer’s championship twice (2016, 2017) and the Xfinity manufacturer’s title four times.
Key wins for JGR with Toyota include the Daytona 500 (Hamlin, 2016), the Brickyard 400 (Kyle Busch, twice), the Southern 500 (five times) and Coke 600 (Carl Edwards, 2015).
Since its inception in 1992, JGR has driven under the banners of Chevrolet (1992-96), Pontiac (1997-2002), Chevrolet (2000-07) and Toyota.
A day after his best finish since July, Roush Fenway Racing announced Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s three primary sponsors have extended their deals with the team through 2021.
Stenhouse and the No. 17 Ford will continue to be sponsored by Fastenal, SunnyD and Fifth Third Bank. Fastenal will remain the anchor sponsor on the car and has increased its number of races as primary sponsor.
Fifth Third Bank was on Stenhouse’s car last year when he won his first two Cup races at Talladega and in the July race at Daytona.
Fastenal has been with Roush Fenway since 2010 when it sponsored Carl Edwards in the Xfinity Series. It began sponsoring Stenhouse in 2015. It was a primary or co-primary sponsor of Stenhouse in 16 races in 2017.
“It’s an exciting day for everyone here at Roush Fenway Racing,” Stenhouse said in a statement. “I’m thankful for all their support over the years and I’m really looking forward to continuing our partnership with Fastenal, Fifth Third Bank, and SunnyD for three more years. I’m grateful they took a chance on a rookie driver. I look forward to many years to come and hope we can all battle together for a championship.”
SunnyD was Stenhouse’s sponsor this last weekend when he placed fourth in the Food City 500, giving him his first top five since his win at Daytona. It was also his first top 10 of the season.
The race, which transpired over two days because of weather, saw Stenhouse rebound from multiple setbacks to challenge for the lead in the final 22 laps.
After starting fourth, Stenhouse was running in second on Lap 61 when he was spun by contact with Erik Jones. After restarting 27th, Stenhouse climbed to ninth by the end of Stage 1.
But on Lap 130, the No. 17 team was called for an uncontrolled tire penalty.
Then during the caution period following the end of Stage 2, Stenhouse had to pit three times to repair damage from a multicar crash on a previous restart.
Despite all of that, Stenhouse found himself in fourth place on the final restart with 22 laps to go.
He challenged Kyle Larson for the lead but wasn’t able to pass the No. 42 Chevrolet.
“We were really, really strong and I felt confident coming into the race yesterday and today,” Stenhouse said after his fourth top five in 11 Bristol starts. “We got into second and I was hoping it would just go green to the end, knowing that we had better tires than the 42, who was the class of the field all day. Then we restarted there at the end. (Crew chief) Brian (Pattie) said he didn’t get to really check the stagger on these tires and maybe make an adjustment with it. We didn’t take fuel and that sometimes tightens you up a little bit, but, all in all, a great weekend for us. Hopefully, this will kind of get us going and kick-start us into next week and the rest of the season.”
For the next four weeks, the Xfinity Series will give four different sets of drivers a chance at the money, the glory and the fun with the return of the Dash 4 Cash program.
Each week, beginning this Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway, four drivers will compete for $100,000. The competition continues at Richmond Raceway, Talladega Superspeedway and Dover International Speedway.
Whoever finishes highest among the four drivers each week wins the money. That driver and the three drivers placing behind him advance to the next Dash 4 Cash round.
For these four races, Cup Series drivers are not permitted to compete.
That means the money, the glory, the fun – and the race wins – will only be enjoyed by Xfinity drivers. Through six races, Xfinity regulars have won once, in the season-opener at Daytona.
Hemric, in his second full-time year with Richard Childress Racing, is the only of the four who participated in the Dash 4 Cash last year and won money. The 27-year-old driver won $100,000 at Bristol when it was the second stop among the Dash 4 Cash races.
“As young as we are we get to run for a hundred grand, there’s not a lot of people (who) can say that,” Hemric said after the Texas race. “Having the opportunity to taste that last year and experience that was really something that we definitely enjoyed and hopefully we can do that again next week.”
Hemric enters Bristol with two consecutive top fives, including placing third at Texas. His first two Xfinity starts at Bristol resulted in a top five and a top 10.
Custer, 20, is also in his second full-time season and was part of the Dash 4 Cash last year at Bristol. Custer wrecked out of that race and finished 10th in the August Bristol race.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver enters the weekend coming off his first top five of the year, placing fourth in Texas.
“I think at the start of the year we had some speed, we just had some bad luck with things going wrong and getting in wrecks,” Custer said after the race. “As it went, we’ve cleaned ourselves up a little bit and haven’t had the bad luck. We’ve had fast cars, so I think we just have to get a little bit better and I think just have a really smooth and everything go right race and I think hopefully we can put that together next week.”
The other half of the four drivers are made up of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Bell and Preece.
Bell is in his first full-time season in Xfinity and Preece is competing part-time after a four-race tryout last season.
Preece has two starts at Bristol that came in 2015 when he competed with JD Motorsports in his only full-time Xfinity season.
“I think I’m pretty grateful for just having the opportunity,” Preece said. “Did I think this (would be possible) last January in 2017? Absolutely not. I fully intended on pretty much settling and racing modifieds for the rest of my life. When Carl Edwards retired and everything kind of shifted, I was like, ‘OK, there’s an opportunity here. I need to try and take advantage of this’ and it got me to those two races and I think you’ve seen how things have kind of taken off from there.”
Preece, 27, earned one win and four top fives in all of his starts with JGR last year. That resulted in 10 more races this season for the Connecticut native.
“Every time I show up to the race track, I’m almost treating it like it’s my last, even though I know I have 10 races right now,” Preece said. “Each one of these races could determine my future. That’s pretty much how I show up and that’s how I’m going to race.”
Preece said winning the $100,000 would help him finish building a race car.
Preece is well aware of the backgrounds of his Dash 4 Cash competitors entering the first short track race of the season.
“Daniel and I, he’s from late models, I actually raced Daniel in modifieds growing up quite a while ago,” Preece said. “So we’re kind of from the same old deal on the East Coast and then you got Bell, he’s a midget driver from out west and then you got Cole who is (from the) K&N (Pro Series) and all that. We’re all from the short tracks.”
How will these kindred spirits race each other for the money, the glory and the fun without those pesky Cup drivers getting in the way?
According to Bell, who has four top fives through six races, just like they would at “any rental go-kart track.”
“We’re going to run just as hard as we would for a Cup win,” Bell said. “We’re race car drivers. It doesn’t really matter what we’re racing for, we’re going to go give it our all no matter what.”
Hemric said it’s “very humbling” knowing where his competitors come from.
“It’s just a nature of something that we’ve all been passionate about and love to do since a time we could remember,” Hemric said. “I think we all know each other’s stories pretty well. It’s pretty special to share a moment like that next week with these guys and look forward to battling to the end with them.”