Roush Fenway Racing announced on Tuesday that they are parting company with Matt Kenseth, who has been with the team for 14 years including winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in 2003.
"I'd like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service," said team co-owner Jack Roush. "Matt has been an integral part of this organisation for well over a decade, and we are extremely appreciative of his accomplishments and contributions to the team, and will always consider him a part of the Roush Fenway family.
"We're fortunate that we were able to tap into Matt's potential and bring him on board many years ago, and I'm proud that together we were able to combine the tools and the resources of Roush Fenway with his talent and determination to forge a partnership that yielded a championship at the Cup level and all of his 22 Cup victories, including two Daytona 500 wins," he added - one of which came just four months ago.
"I'm very thankful to Jack Roush for the opportunities he's given me over the past 14 years. Together we have enjoyed a lot of success," responded Kenseth via his Twitter page.
No reason was given for the decision to part company. As recently as last month, both Kenseth and Roush indicated that they were hoping that it would be possible to reach an agreement to extend the current contract: "He's a cornerstone of Roush Fenway and he'll be part of it as long as I am and as long as he wants to be, as long as I'm able to stay at the head of it," said Roush at the time.
However, the #17 car has been struggling to find sponsorship this season following the departure of long-time backer Crown Royal at the end of 2011 and has had to rely on a patchwork of deals with Best Buy, Fifth Third Bank, Zest, Vavoline and Ford - with Roush also having to dip into his pocket at times. Over the winter, the team terminated the fourth car in its Cup line up, the #6 car driven last season by David Ragan, after losing the backing of another big sponsor, UPS.
The team will be in a lot better financial situation without having to pay the salary of a former Cup champion, with the team announcing that they will be replacing Kenseth by putting their leading development driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. behind the wheel of the #17 next season. Stenhouse is locked into a long-term deal with the team but has been growing frustrated with the lack of opportunities to move up from the Nationwide Series after clinching the title at the end of 2011 for Roush.
"Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has more than proved his abilities on the race track,” said Roush of the 24-year-old driver. "We feel that he is not only a key piece of our team's future, but a key piece of the future of the sport. Roush Fenway is an organisation with a wonderful past and present, as well as an extremely promising future, and I can't think of a better candidate than Ricky to usher in the next era of success for the team."
As well as Stenhouse, Roush's development stable also includes Trevor Bayne who shot to fame after winning the 2011 Daytona 500 while being loaned out to the Wood Brothers team for a limited Cup season. Despite that success, Bayne still has been unable to get sufficient sponsorship to put together a full-time run in either championship in 2012.