Follow me on

Twitter Feed Facebook Feed RSS Feed Linked In Youtube

An emotional Jack Roush: on the unexpected shakeup at the top of Matt Kenseth's team

  Matt Kenseth (R) and now ex-crew chief Drew Blickensderfer: the fine art of being a NASCAR crew chief involves a lot of magic and mystery (Photo: Autostock)

   By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   Raised eyebrows?
   Yes, to be blunt.
   The season is just a few weeks old, and before even the second NASCAR 500 of the year team owner Jack Roush has made a shakeup – giving 2003 Cup tour champion Matt Kenseth a new crew chief -- veteran old-schooler Todd Parrott replacing Drew Blickensderfer on top of the pit box.
   It is almost as surprising, in its timing for sure, as that late-season shakeup at Joe Gibbs, where Kyle Busch's crew chief, Steve Addington, was forced out despite helping Busch win more races in a two-year stretch than anyone else but Jimmie Johnson.
    A cold, straight-forward business move, after a slow start, after a run of lackluster performances last season, and Kenseth failing to make the playoffs?
   Well, yes and no.
   Roush, in an emotional 30 minutes, with Robbie Reiser, Parrott and Kenseth at his side, laid out the situation.
   Roush described his pairing of Kenseth and Blickensderfer in late 2008 as "the obvious thing we needed," after Reiser, Kenseth's long-time crew chief decided he wanted to spend less time on the road and move to a new part of the company, running the massive shop operation.
   Roush praised Blickensderfer profusely....but then adding "the thing about putting our teams together is if you looked at the sum of what a person's skill-sets are, their ambitions, their motivations and talent, having the arithmetic sum work out right is not enough. 
    "You've got to have chemistry."
    Roush, an engineer by training, over his time in this sport has gone back and forth about how to lay out a race team's management. At one point he was on path to have all engineers as crew chiefs, because of the increasingly high-tech nature of this sport.
    However chemistry and leadership have proven to be even more important than sheer technical prowess. And finding that 'right' man and then the so elusive magic of chemistry isn't easy for anyone in this sport. Ask fellow team owners Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress and Gibbs.

  Championship form: Matt Kenseth (L) and then crew chief Robbie Reiser (Photo: Autostock)

   Being a successful NASCAR Cup crew chief seems as much an art form as anything. Finding that man sometimes seems remarkably mysterious too – consider Gibbs picking unknown Greg Zipadelli to work with Tony Stewart, for example.
   So there are several layers to this Kenseth thing:
   First, getting the team fired up.
   Second, getting the team challenging for wins again with regularity.
   Third, dealing with all the men involved in a sensitive, empathetic manner....not always easy in this press-packed sports-business.
    "I'm going to go off-message here for a minute and do what Paul Harvey did -- and give you the rest of the story," Roush began.
    "I'm really conflicted about what we're doing here. This is a performance business; we've all got to do what we have to do out there on the firing line, to meet the expectations of our fans, to satisfy our sponsors and the other partners we've got...and we have to do the right 'human' things as well. 
     "That's where my point of conflict comes, with the changes we're making here. 
     "Drew was my choice, he was Matt's choice a year and a half ago to lead this team.  He has done everything we asked him to do.  He is a person extraordinarily talented and able. 
    "He comes from a strong sports and competitive background; his father is a coach, and I'm sure a good role model. 
    "Drew will be in the Roush Fenway organization hopefully for a long time, and he will be a factor in Sprint Cup racing in the future on one of our teams."
    That said, Roush described Parrott's new job as "interim....with an expectation that we can get a formula here that will work better."
    And Reiser himself will play a role in this next phase of the Kenseth saga, whether he wants to or not, Roush said: "This is a command appearance for Robbie (here this weekend, on top Kenseth's pit box with Parrott).
    "I asked him to come out and give us a hand. This is all-hands-on-deck."


   Crew chief Todd Parrott (L), with Bobby Labonte. Can Parrott rekindle Matt Kenseth's fire? (Photo: Autostock)


    Roush, curiously perhaps, conceded he had mixed emotions about this whole situation: "I know that as much conflicted as I am, Matt is equally conflicted.  Drew and Matt won races together in Nationwide; they had great rapport."
    Certainly Kenseth and Reiser had chemistry. During their years together they were a formidable force. Since splitting, though, Kenseth has only shown occasional bursts of that winning touch. Yes, he opened 2009 with Blickensderfer with back-to-back wins at Daytona and here. But the rest of the season was fitful.
    Yes, 2009 wasn't a great year for anyone not under the Hendrick banner. However Kasey Kahne strong performances at Daytona during SpeedWeeks, his first weeks on the Ford team, may have shown Roush a different look at the whole situation.
    Roush said it was "unfortunate" that the chemistry between Kenseth and Blickensderfer floundered. "That's my failing...and one of the reasons I insisted on Robbie coming today -- I feel it's his failing, and I want him to comment.
     Todd Parrott is landmark fixture in this sport, with a Hall of Fame father, and his own NASCAR championship trophy (1999, with Dale Jarrett); Parrott has been with Roush and Robert and Doug Yates and Ford for years.
     "He's also won at Indianapolis, which has been one of my nemesis," Roush pointed out. 
    "So he brings great strength to the team." 
     But some questions too. As well-known as Parrott is, and as recognized a talent, is he too old-school for NASCAR 2010?
     One thing for sure, Parrott is a consummate organizer, a no-nonsense boss.
     Last season Parrott was Bobby Labonte's crew chief for the Doug Yates part of this Ford operation. But that team never quite seemed to catch fire. Labonte moved on; Parrott moved back into the shop.
    But Parrott says he's missed "digging with these guys...the competition side of it...fighting tooth and nail."
    And if it's a feisty in-your-face boss that Roush wants here, Parrott certainly fits the bill:  "He's got the presence and experience to manage this band of pirates Robbie has assembled," Roush says.
    Roush admitted he's had thoughts of plugging Reiser back into the equation with Kenseth (much as Roush re-paired Carl Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne a few years back).
    Roush said a key to this entire development was to ensure Kenseth and his team didn't "waste" any races during this 26-week regular season that leads up to the championship playoffs – which Kenseth failed to make last season.

   Car owner Jack Roush (L) and crew chief Todd Parrott (R): Can Parrott recreate the magic? (Photo: Autostock)

    However Roush says he's been too impressed with Reiser's work in directing shop operations to want to change that up too. "With Robbie there's been a resurgence. He's certainly put Roush Fenway on a level we've never been on, with our quality, our consistency, our manufacturing prowess.
    "And he breathed life into Greg Biffle's team with pit stops and organization of the people...and the same thing with Carl Edwards.
     "But he pretty much left untouched Matt's team.... because he had his fingerprints all over that, and he wanted those guys to excel.
     "Unfortunately, they haven't excelled. 
     "Matt Kenseth is as good a driver as anybody in this business has ever been or will be. And it's my failing I haven't put him in a situation yet where he can demonstrate that to all."
       Roush said it was clear something wasn't working: "Robbie had a concern, Matt had a concern, Chris Andrews (one of the chief engineers) had a concern, I had a concern....and it all came together." 
    Kenseth said he sensed his crew was looking for more forceful leadership: "They were used to an experienced, strong leader like Robbie. 
     "When Todd comes in, his voice thunders through the room.
     "We were just missing something on the team.  I didn't feel the way we operated at Daytona we could win races and championships.
     "It was just the whole dynamic of the team.  We needed something to get the whole group elevated.


   Drew Blickensderfer: Next? (Photo: Autostock)

    "Drew and I are really good friends, and we'll continue to be really good friends," Kenseth went on.  "We had a lot of fun working together...and honestly I feel I've failed in a way to help him enough."
    And Kenseth pointed out that Blickensderfer led Edwards to the Nationwide championship "from a huge deficit.
    "So Drew has what it takes to be a successful crew chief. 
     "It really wasn't a change that was about me and Drew, to be honest with you."
    Yet the timing....just weeks into the season. Why not make a change during off-season?
   Kenseth accepted responsibility for that. "I really felt we needed to give Drew a full year and a full off-season," Kenseth said.
    "So it's really hard to explain the timing of the change. It doesn't make any sense; it's not really good for anybody. But it's just the way it went down."
   And Kenseth concedes "Who knows if it's even the right change?"
     But it is change, and Kenseth said that may be the key point:  "We have a great group of people, in all the right places...but you didn't feel like everybody came in the truck fired up to go win races. 
    "I was like 'We need to get some spark.'
     "I'm not a very good leader; I'll admit I'm probably not the guy to do that.
     "I just felt something needed to be changed -- and, unfortunately, it usually starts with the driver or crew chief.
     "You guys say I don't show emotion sometimes...and I felt the whole group was like that.
       "I don't know that it will be different this week, but that's what we're trying to fix."
      Yes, true. But Roush himself has another agenda here too: "I just want to make sure everybody felt my passion, my empathy, my support, and my belief in Drew Blickensderfer.
    "I want to make sure everybody feels Drew Blickensderfer didn't get fired and that we're really concerned about his success and his state of mind."

  Matt Kenseth: The next step? (Photo: Autostock)

Maybe it was Crown Royal

Maybe it was Crown Royal knocking Jack Roush's hat off for change. To watch a former driver of which you "used" to sponsor win the Daytona 500 has to bite back at Roush-Fenway a little.

At what point will it ever be

At what point will it ever be Matts sour grapes attitude that is the biggest problem?

Jeff Burton

I lost a lot of respect after the way he handled the Jeff Burton situation. I'm a Burton fan. Roush thought he was done and showed him the door. What he's doing here is typical Roush. Instead of being a little bit patient, he over-reacts.

Jack is conflicted

To Drew: One of the greatest minds in the automotive world gives you compliments like that, you must be an exceptional person. Clearly Jack didn't want to do this, plus he believes in you and has your personal best interest at heart.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

© 2010-2011 www.mikemulhern.net All rights reserved.
Web site by www.webdesigncarolinas.com