CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — A critical playoff race that will end the championship chances for four NASCAR drivers has been overshadowed by a free-agent market that took a wild turn this week when Roush Fenway Racing abruptly dumped Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse was told Wednesday the team was not interested in exercising the remaining two years on his contract and would instead put Chris Buescher, a former Roush development driver, in the flagship No. 17 Ford next season. Both Stenhouse and JTG Daugherty Racing, Buescher's current team, were blindsided as another name was added to a crowded group of drivers chasing a handful of open seats for 2020.
"It was unfortunate for sure, definite tough timing for myself and my group to try to find another option," Stenhouse said Friday.
He appeared briefly emotional reflecting on his 11-year relationship with Jack Roush, which resulted in back-to-back Xfinity Series championships and a pair of Cup Series victories. But Stenhouse has not made the playoffs the last two seasons, is ranked 23rd in the Cup standings and has been outrun all year by new teammate Ryan Newman.
"I've got to look back on the 11 years I had with Jack, and winning races and championships, and getting my first Cup win and being competitive. Not as consistent as we wanted," Stenhouse said before choking out his next words. "At the end of it all, I am very thankful that Jack took a chance on a dirt racer from Mississippi to come drive his cars. That was fun. A little emotional with the relationship Jack and I have. Only team I've ever been at."
The firing was blasted by Kevin Harvick, who has a management company that takes over representation of Stenhouse beginning next year. But Kevin Harvick Inc. is already at work trying to find a seat for Stenhouse.
"Ricky has got a great reputation in the garage, is well-connected, he's the only driver at Roush Racing that has won races since Carl Edwards," Harvick said. "That's the unfortunate thing, is he's a Cup winner, he's a two-time Xfinity champion and it's just bad timing. That's not the way I would run a business.
"It's a lot to digest in a couple of days and you have to digest that and come up with a plan pretty quick."
Roush was not contractually obligated to inform Stenhouse he was not returning until Dec. 1, but told him the morning after the deal with Buescher was completed this week.
Harvick still questioned the timing.
"Those particular business practices are tough to deal with just because of how late in the season it is and how few cars there are. Based on everything that we've been involved with, nothing had ever been talked about," Harvick said of Stenhouse's potential firing.
"When I had tough moments at (Richard Childress Racing) and things were bad, we would sit down and we would talk through things and we'd say 'OK this is what we need to do, this is what I need to do better, this is what I think the team needs to do better.' You had real life conversations. Just to drop the hatchet in a surprise meeting with seven days to go is pretty bad business ethics in my opinion."
It's no secret that Roush's cars had fallen off the pace and have not been able to compete with NASCAR's elite teams for years. But as the organization tried to find improvement, it never came for Stenhouse — even in a season in which Newman not only qualified for the playoffs but is in position to advance to the second round.
Although he thought he was safe at Roush through 2021, the team made an abrupt shift when it learned Buescher had yet to extend his deal with JTG.
Buescher began his career with Roush, but was loaned out to Front Row Motorsports in 2016. A clause was added to his contract at the time in which Buescher had to inform Roush if he ever became available, and when the team learned in the last two weeks that his deal with JTG was not completed, they pulled him back in.
Roush said he was making right one of his biggest regrets in his 32 seasons of NASCAR racing in that he should have expanded his team and funded a car for Buescher out of pocket instead of letting him leave the organization. He also seemed to take a shot at Stenhouse's on-track mistakes, which last week included him spinning championship contender Martin Truex Jr. as Truex tried to put Stenhouse a lap down as the leader.
Stenhouse has failed to finish 28 of his 248 Cup starts and failed to qualify at Talladega in 2014.
"We are going to work on our cars being faster and not repairing them after they are damaged," Roush said.
Tension was already high headed into this weekend's hybrid oval-road course race on The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The elimination race will trim the playoff field from 16 to 12 at the checkered flag on Sunday. The bottom four in the standings are Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones.
In Friday qualifying, William Byron edged teammate Bowman for the pole in an all-Hendrick Motorsports front row. Byron is ahead of Bowman by just two points in the battle for the 12th spot and advancing into the second round of the playoffs.
Bowyer and Busch are among the many drivers yet to announce deals for next season, although Bowyer said he feels confident his contract will be extended at Stewart-Haas Racing. Chip Ganassi has said over the last month that he and Busch are in the final stages of an extension; Busch said his focus is on the playoffs.
Regardless of whether Bowyer and Busch stay with their respective teams, seats are filling fast and there won't be enough jobs to go around.
Daniel Hemric learned last week he was not being brought back for a second season at Richard Childress Racing, Daniel Suarez could be out at SHR if the team promotes Cole Custer from the Xfinity Series and Stenhouse is now suddenly available. A second group of drivers — think Ross Chastain, Corey LaJoie and Michael McDowell — are also seeking jobs in a competitive market with a fluctuating pay scale. Lower tier drivers typically work out one-year contracts with their teams that leave them looking for work at the end of each season.