In The Pits: Silly Season not so silly anymore

Associated Press Published: July 2, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin took themselves right out of NASCAR's potential free-agent pool last week, long before anyone wondered about their future.

Kenseth announced his departure from Roush Fenway Racing after 14 years and Hamlin agreed to an extension with Joe Gibbs Racing, the team many expect to land Kenseth for next season.

On the surface, neither move makes much sense.

Kenseth, the points leader, is in the middle of what could be a championship-winning season and is leaving the team that guided him to the 2003 title and a pair of Daytona 500 wins. Hamlin, who has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in each of his first six seasons, agreed to the new deal last week even though his contract with the team that gave him his big break wasn't set to expire until the end of next season. So much for seeing what the market could bear.

Look deeper and these decisions are more like no-brainers.

Both drivers are with elite teams and there aren't many jobs that would be considered an upgrade.

Kenseth is gambling that his No. 17 crew won't quit on him down the stretch as he tries to win a second championship. But with teammate Greg Biffle also in the hunt, and Carl Edwards not ruled out of Chase contention, it's possible RFR resources could shift away from Kenseth now that all the cards are on the table.

Kenseth could have retired driving for Roush, but sooner or later, the organization was going to have to make room in its Cup lineup for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has been mired in the Nationwide Series and is under contract to RFR for many more years. Edwards signed a big deal last year, so he's not going anywhere, and Biffle locked up a sponsorship commitment when he extended his contract last season.

That left Kenseth, who is already driving a sponsorship-challenged car that can't pick up consistent funding despite his steady — and stellar — on-track performance. He has not said why he is leaving and Roush officials haven't offered much insight, either.

But assuming that JGR is his next stop, well, that's a brilliant move by Kenseth.

He likely knows his car funding is secure for next year and beyond. And JGR is equal in performance to Roush, maybe even better.

Statistically, the Roush teams go through dips in which the drivers may win a race here and there, but they aren't always legitimate title contenders across the board. JGR hasn't won a title since Tony Stewart in 2005, but the team is usually good for at least two Chase berths between three drivers every season.

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