Published November 20, 2014
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.
So from a performance standpoint, and likely a stability standpoint — and in fairness, Jack Roush has been committed to funding Kenseth's car out of pocket — it looks like Kenseth has made a shrewd move.
Hamlin? He likely left money on the table when he inked this new deal because there are teams out there willing to pay to get a 19-race winner who still has at least 10 years left in him. Yet Hamlin knows he needs a team can give him the ride he needs to fill that championship gap, he is finally starting to emerge from the funk he slipped into after losing the 2010 championship to Jimmie Johnson, and it makes no sense for him to take more money while taking two steps backward in his pursuit of the big prize.
So why change the scenery? As is, Hamlin is already spending this season adjusting to new crew chief Darian Grubb after six years and 17 wins with Mike Ford.
There is only one place that's an instant upgrade for Hamlin, but Hendrick Motorsports doesn't have any current openings. The best Hamlin could have done was hope Jeff Gordon retires and the organization tabbed him — over everybody else in NASCAR — to fill the four-time champion's seat.
Chances are, Hamlin did some homework and learned that the 40-year-old Gordon isn't going anywhere during this current contract window. That No. 24 seat is likely the only one that could have lured Hamlin away from JGR, and if he knows it's not coming open then the grass at JGR is green enough for now.
That's likely the way it's going to play out for some time as the top-name drivers begin to outnumber the amount of quality rides.
It's anybody's guess if Kurt Busch is going to be able to slide back in with an elite team at the end of this season, or if Ryan Newman will end up at an organization below Stewart-Haas Racing on the food chain. Brian Vickers is still on the outside looking in, and Elliott Sadler would love to get back into the Cup Series.
Don't forget Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, who can't get a full-time ride in Cup or Nationwide right now and got passed over for his big break when Kenseth's seat at Roush went to Stenhouse.
What Kenseth and Hamlin did last week is show that NASCAR's traditional "silly season" — that time of year when drivers jump from team to team — isn't so silly anymore, and may never be that way again.