Not even Kenseth safe from declining economy

Not even NASCAR’s top drivers are safe from the declining economic climate.

With only a month before the Daytona 500, it was revealed this week that last year’s race winner and 2003 Sprint Cup champion Matt Kenseth does not have full sponsorship for the 2010 season.

Say what?

The No. 17 Ford has a partial season of funding from Crown Royal. The company previously sponsored former Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Jamie McMurray in the No. 26 car, but switched to Kenseth following the 2009 season. The switch resulted in the No. 26 car being dropped from the Roush-Fenway lineup in order to meet NASCAR’s four-car limit.

Kenseth’s longtime sponsor DeWalt Power Tools ended its support of the No. 17 car at the conclusion of 2009. DeWalt had been Kenseth’s primary sponsor in Cup since he was named Rookie of the Year in 2000.

Roush-Fenway Racing President Geoff Smith sounded confident the organization would be able to secure full funding for the No. 17 car “within a very few days.”

But the fact Kenseth lacks sponsorship so close to the season-opening Daytona 500 raises several alarms.

This is the driver who cruised along to his Cup championship in 2003. Kenseth’s points lead was so large going into Homestead that if he had skipped the final race, he still would have claimed the title. It’s because of him that NASCAR instituted the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs-style system, so a driver wouldn’t be able to run away with the championship again.

This is also the driver who nearly cost Jimmie Johnson his first championship in 2006. The two duked it out for an entire season, with Kenseth coming within just 56 points of Johnson for the title.

Last season was a mixed bag for Kenseth. He won the first two races of the season, the Daytona 500 and Auto Club 500 at Fontana. But afterward the team uncharacteristically struggled, losing the consistency that was once a staple of the No. 17. The biggest blow came when Kenseth did not make the Chase. It was the first time since its inception that Kenseth was not in the thick of it vying for the title.

Kenseth’s teammates at Roush-Fenway, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and David Ragan, have secured full sponsorship for the entire 2010 season. But of the four drivers, Kenseth was the only one to win any races last year. Roush-Fenway claimed only three wins in 2009, and Kenseth accounted for two of them. The third belonged to McMurray, now driving for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.

Kenseth has 18 wins, 95 top 5's and 174 top 10's in 364 Cup starts. Impressive, to say the least – and Kenseth has backed them up on the track time and time again.

But in today’s struggling economy, a proven driver like Kenseth may no longer be entitled to have a bad year. What does it say when a highly established race team like Roush-Fenway is having trouble securing sponsorship?

Economic conditions have bred an unforgiving atmosphere in NASCAR – and even the sport’s top drivers are not immune.

Note: Roush-Fenway announced Jan. 19 during the Charlotte Media Tour that the organization has secured full sponsorship for the No. 17 car, but no further details were provided.

Photo: Matt Kenseth interacts with fans at the Roush-Fenway Fan Appreciation Day in May 2009 at the team's shop in Concord, N.C. (Taken by Katy Lindamood)
Not even Kenseth safe from declining economy Not even Kenseth safe from declining economy Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Friday, January 15, 2010 Rating: 5