In the most stunning Silly Season news in years, perhaps longer, 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth will leave Roush-Fenway Racing at the end of the season.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the Nationwide Series standout and defending champion in that division, will take the wheel of the No. 17 Fords Kenseth has piloted since joining the Cup ranks full time in 2000.
It is hard to imagine Kenseth, who won the Daytona 500 this year and currently leads the standings by 11 points over teammate Greg Biffle, driving anywhere but Roush-Fenway Racing and with any car number but the 17. Only one of his 452 starts in NASCAR's premier division to date have come with a different combination. That was his debut, at Dover in September 1998, when he drove Bill Elliott's No. 94 Ford Taurus while Elliott was home in Georgia for his father's funeral.
Kenseth's days in the 17 actually stretch all the way back to 1997, when he took over as driver of Robbie Reiser's Chevrolets in what was then the NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) Series. The pair finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the championship the following year, then third behind Earnhardt and Jeff Green after a last-race accident in 1999.
In 2000, Kenseth beat Earnhardt out for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year, winning the Coca-Cola 600 along the way. He went winless in a 2001 season that saw team-wide misery for Roush's operation, but rebounded the next year to win five races. The following season, Kenseth won the first Cup championship for Roush's team despite winning only one race - which led to the Chase for the Championship beginning in 2004.
All told, Kenseth has 22 wins and counting as driver of Roush's cars. He has finished in the top-10 in points all but two seasons since 2002, and is one of NASCAR's steadiest competitors.
The rumor mill points Kenseth to either Penske Racing - which is switching to Ford in 2013 and would keep him in the only nameplate he's known in his Cup career - or the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota outfit. A driver with his talent and credentials would usually be at or near the top of many teams' wishlists, but sponsorship will be the major determining factor in whether a team can sign Kenseth to drive for them starting next year.