SPARTA, Ky. — Matt Kenseth sat down before dozens of reporters on Friday like a man in the middle of a difficult divorce.
In light of his ballyhooed move to leave Roush Fenway Racing at the end of this season, the NASCAR Sprint Cup driver was asked if this was something he had agonized over.
“You mean coming in here this morning?” he cracked. “Yeah.”
Far from a spotlight-seeker, Kenseth nonetheless has provided the biggest buzz of this weekend’s NASCAR races at Kentucky Speedway after his controversial break with the team he has driven for the last 15 years.
Team owner Jack Roush also spoke about the news that broke on Tuesday. He said he was as surprised as anyone to find out that Kenseth, who has won two Daytona 500s for Roush including this year’s, was leaving.
Roush swore that he and his longtime driver would remain friends. But then he added, “I have not lost respect for Matt and I hope he hasn’t for me. Now, I won’t have the same sense of wishing for his success on the racetrack next year that I will this year. So, from that point of view, he’ll be moving to the dark side.”
He was sort of kidding about the dark side. But it was hard to tell.
Kenseth and Roush both looked uncomfortable talking about their high-profile split. Both would prefer to talk about cars than contracts.
Roush conceded that had he been more attuned to personnel decisions he might have been able to head off the entire controversy.
“If I had been as vigilant and as diligent and as interested in that side of the business as I am in finding why a fuel pump broke or why a connecting-rod bearing failed or how we can get an extra pound of downforce, if I had taken care of the business side as hard as I try to take care of the technical side, I might have been able to stop that,” he said.
Kenseth has not revealed where he’ll drive next year, although speculation points to Joe Gibbs Racing.
He acknowledged in cloudy terms that deliberations about his future with Roush Fenway had been weighing on him.
“Getting to this point in the season it was definitely somewhat stressful not knowing 100 percent what I was going to do,” he said. “It all ended up I guess coming together pretty quickly. I really felt and feel like it is absolutely the right thing to do and the right place for me next year and for my future as well. It is kind of hard to explain but a lot of things pointed and pulled me in that direction. A lot of things happened or didn’t happen that led to that.”
He added that he wanted nothing more than to announce where he was going in 2013 to end all the questions.
“That ball is not in my court, unfortunately,” he said. “We are trying to get that done as soon as possible just so it is out there and we can go on. Everybody kind of has their ideas and half the story is out there but hopefully we can get it out there and go on.”
Kenseth and Roush Fenway have been one of the sport’s top teams. The 40-year-old from Cambridge, Wis., leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings this year, having already won the title in 2003. He has visited Victory Lane 22 times, has 121 top-five finishes and has been in the top 10 220 times in 452 career starts — all with Roush Fenway.
Roush reiterated that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would be promoted to take Kenseth’s seat and that Trevor Bayne’s role would also be expanded. He said Stenhouse would most likely race under the same No. 17 that Kenseth had. He added that the team’s flagship No. 6 probably won’t come out of mothballs unless a sponsor demands it.
There was remorse on both sides.
“I’ve enjoyed the 15 years with Matt and the success that he’s had and the growth that’s occurred with the team through his time as a driver,” Roush said. “He’s a cornerstone of what we do. His DNA is all over the things that we’re known for, and our success.”
Kenseth sounded almost wistful about the separation as well. He said everyone on the Roush Fenway team would try to focus on the job at hand, winning races.
“For the rest of the season it is only a distraction if we let it (be one),” he said. “It is totally up to me and the race team with how we handle this going forward. This is the toughest weekend and after that I think things will settle down a little bit and we will be just fine for the rest of the year.”