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.

As for Kenseth, the 40-year-old former Cup champion insisted on Twitter that "I have nothing to announce regarding 2013," adding: "I feel the timing of this announcement gives RFR ample time to get things lined up."

The general assumption in the NASCAR paddock is that Kenseth is close to a deal to join Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. Last year, JGR made a big play for another Roush Fenway free agent in Carl Edwards, who at the time was leading the Sprint Cup points standings - just as Kenseth is currently doing in 2012.

Last year JGR were looking for someone to build a fourth car operation around, and while that's still a possibility for them with Kenseth, it's also possible that the team are lining him up as a replacement for Joey Logano who is out of contract at the end of the season. Logano's position at JGR has been the subject of much speculation in recent months after being perceived not to have delivered on his early potential, but his performance has picked up in recent weeks with victories in both the Nationwide and Cup championships for the team.

If Kenseth did not move to JGR then the open slots at top teams are few and far between. It had been suggested that he might move to Penske, since that team are moving from Dodge to Ford engines next season and someone with Kenseth's considerable experience and expertise with the Ford units would be a considerable asset.

However Ford's racing director Jamie Allison cooled that speculation when he realsed a statement today in response to the Roush announcement in which he said: "All of us at Ford are certainly disappointed to hear that Matt will be leaving, and he will be certainly missed by us and the Ford Racing fans," adding: "We are thankful for Matt's winning efforts and championship-calibre success with the Roush and Ford racing programs."

Of more immediate concern is where this leaves Kenseth's 2012 Sprint Cup championship bid, and whether the team will be fully behind him as the season moves to its climax. At the moment, Kenseth holds an 11pt lead in the standings over his current Roush team mate Greg Biffle.

"The #17 is positioned extremely well this season, and I'm committed to providing the team the best resources to continue their run for the 2012 championship," stated Roush emphatically. "I have no doubt that Matt will do his part."

"As a team we are committed as ever to the remainder of the 2012 season and chasing a 3rd sprint cup title for Jack and RFR," agreed Kenseth on Twitter. "Darian and Tony proved to us last year there is no such thing as a 'lame duck' team or season. We will continue to go to work and race hard," he added, referring to Tony Stewart and his crew chief Darian Grubb, who blazed to victory in the 2011 Chase despite Grubb knowing early in the process that he was being let go by Stewart.

The 14 year partnership between Roush and Kenseth had been the longest of any active owner and driver in NASCAR, with the sole exception of Jeff Gordon's 19-year stint at Hendrick Motorsport. He would have reached the 500-start landmark with the team if he'd extended into the 2013 season. Kenseth has started all but one of his Cup races in a Roush Fenway Racing car, but made his d?but at Dover in September 1998 as a stand-in for owner-driver Bill Elliott when Elliott had to attend his father's funeral.



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