What’s in a number?
Matt Kenseth found out over the last week after Roush-Fenway Racing put out the word that a new number would be associated with his team.
Give up the number 17, associated with Kenseth’s NASCAR exploits forever? Unlikely.
But Kenseth was bombarded with questions about the matter, particularly from fans and news media in his home state of Wisconsin.
Would loyal Kenseth followers be buying new jackets and caps? Would the ultimate fans with “17” tattoos face needle modifications?
Not to worry.
Roush-Fenway revealed the “change” Monday, announcing that Fifth Third Bank will be a part-time sponsor on Kenseth’s Fords for four races this season, beginning with Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The car will continue to be numbered 17, but FIFTH THIRD will be in bright letters on the quarter-panels.
The team had some preliminary discussions with NASCAR officials about changing the car number to 53 only for Saturday night’s race but eventually decided to stay with the 17.
Fifth Third, based in Cincinnati, will be Kenseth’s primary sponsor for Saturday night’s race and the Sprint Cup events at Kentucky Speedway June 30, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway July 29 and at Michigan Speedway Aug. 19.
According to officials, the sponsorship will continue into future seasons on a limited basis.
“It’s just a number, but obviously 17 has been on our car since I started the Busch (now Nationwide) Series in 1997,” Kenseth said at the announcement, which was made at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I would hate to change it, although I thought it would be cool to get it approved for the All-Star Race.
“In Wisconsin, they grabbed ahold of it. It (last week’s notice of the change) didn’t say we were changing our number. It left a lot to be interpreted. It kind of got a lot of momentum, which I think is probably what they were after when they sent it out.”
Kenseth is in a contract year with Roush-Fenway. There has been no indication that he would even consider leaving for another team, although sponsorship issues have been a problem. Team co-owner Jack Roush said Monday Kenseth can stay with RFR as long as he wants.
“I think through the years I’ve done a good job of not discussing contracts through the media, and I’m not going to start now,” Kenseth said. “But certainly having sponsorship on the car is important. Two things make this sport happen – No. 1, fans, and No. 2, sponsorship. Everybody knows without that you’re not going to have a successful program for any length of time.
“I’ve been there for 15 years. I don’t think you can ever question the commitment or loyalty on either side. It’s been a long time, and I think it’s been successful for both of us.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.