Matt Kenseth can't outrun spotlight

SPARTA, Ky. -- Matt Kenseth walked in the Kentucky Speedway media center Friday morning, sat down and started to answer the first question about his future:

"Well ..." he said. Then he took a deep breath, paused a moment, and continued.

It's been a long week, placing Kenseth in the one place he hates more than any other -- the center of attention.

Kenseth now is this year's No. 1 lame duck. He's the 2012 points leader for a team he's leaving at the end of the year, the only team he has ever raced for in 13 Sprint Cup seasons.

But Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will drive the No. 17 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing next year, a move that was announced Tuesday.

"It's been kind of a stressful season, to be honest," Kenseth said Friday. "Starting with the sponsorship search and all that, to not being sure what I was going to do. Just getting to this point was somewhat stressful."

Kenseth will move on, a change he said is already in place, but not ready to announce.

"Hopefully it will be sooner than later," Kenseth said. "That ball's not in my court, unfortunately. We are trying to get it done as soon as possible. It's all come together pretty quickly.

"But I feel this is absolutely the right thing to do. It's hard to explain. A lot of things pointed me in that direction."

Watching Kenseth, it's obvious every word about his upcoming plans is painful for him to discuss.

"This is the toughest weekend," he said. "After this, things will settle down a little bit and it'll be fine the rest of the year."

Wishful thinking on Matt's part. Things won't settle down until he announces where he's headed. Most people in the Cup garage believe it's Joe Gibbs Racing.

Speculation runs wild when a big-name driver suddenly is a free agent. Reports surfaced Friday that Kenseth might go to a new Dodge team that would have Michael Andretti as the team owner.

The smart money is on JGR. Wherever it is, the deal is done on Kenseth's end. But the speculation will continue every week until an official announcement comes.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of Kenseth's closest friends in NASCAR, knows the feeling. He went through the endless questions in 2007 when he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Hendrick Motorsports.

"As tough as it is, things work themselves out," Earnhardt said Friday. "You end up in a better place with new challenges and new ideas. But it's a little tough emotionally in the transition when you've been at the same place for so long."

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, is having one of his best seasons. He won the Daytona 500 for the second time in his career. He has 11 top-10s in 17 races and has finished worse than 16th only once.

Consistency is Kenseth's trademark, but it won't be easy to keep things going at a high level when the team is in limbo. Ask Clint Bowyer, who was the lame-duck guy last season at Richard Childress Racing before signing with Michael Waltrip Racing.

"It was catastrophic for us," said Bowyer, who got his first MWR win last weekend at Sonoma. "It's really hard to keep that momentum going. Everybody sees the end of the road. Everyone just starts thinking about getting it over with.

"But Matt's situation is different. We weren't a championship contender like Matt is.
That team will still compete."

Team owner Jack Roush said Friday he was surprised that Kenseth was leaving. Roush also said he wished he had done more to keep him.

Stenhouse said he had no idea a Kenseth departure could happen.

"I was kind of shocked when I heard the news," Stenhouse said Thursday. "I thought for sure that we would be a fourth [RFR] car, and I definitely didn't see Matt going anywhere. I have no idea how it went down. I never would have expected that."

The key question now is whether Kenseth and his team can continue to compete for the championship. Driver Kevin Harvick believes they can.

"Sometimes it makes them better," Harvick said Thursday. "They want to prove everyone else wrong."

Harvick, who owned a Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series team, isn't surprised the announcement of Kenseth's departure came so early in the season.

"The landscape has changed in how the sport works and how people get paid," Harvick said. "It's a lot different than even three years ago. Everybody is on different timing. From a contractual standpoint, you have to get deals done as early as you can so that you can make some plans."

Kenseth has a plan, but he can't talk about it. He probably wishes he never had to talk about it.

That's his nature. He's a quiet guy who wants all this to go away as soon as possible. It won't, of course.

"The biggest challenge for us is all the outside distractions," Kenseth said. "We have to put all this behind us and realize it's up to us. Everybody can let their mind wander and think of different things. It's difficult, especially when you haven't been in this spot."

This is uncharted territory for Kenseth. For now, he's the talk of the garage, the one thing he never wanted to be.