CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NASCAR points leader Matt Kenseth, one of the longest-tenured drivers in the series, is leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season.
He will be replaced in the No. 17 Ford -- the car he has driven for all but one of his 452 career starts -- by Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kenseth's long relationship with Ford apparently will come to an end.
Why? Good question. The team offered no answers in the sudden divorce of one of NASCAR's longest active relationships. Only Jeff Gordon, with Hendrick Motorsports since 1993, has been with his team longer than Kenseth has been with Jack Roush.
"I'd like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service," co-owner Roush said Tuesday. "Matt has been an integral part of this organization 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."
Kenseth and teammate Greg Biffle are ranked first and second in the Sprint Cup Series, clearly poised to make a run at the championship. Kenseth opened the season with his second Daytona 500 victory, and has 11 top-10 finishes through 16 races.
Kenseth did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press on Tuesday, but tweeted about his departure.
"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," he posted. "And 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."
With Roush, Kenseth has built a career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. Besides the wins at Daytona, he has won 22 Cup races, and the 2003 championship. In the Nationwide Series, Kenseth has won 26 races driving for Roush.
Kenseth also is one of only eight drivers to win both a Cup title and the Rookie of the Year award, putting him in the legendary company of Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Gordon, David Pearson, Tony Stewart, Alan Kulwicki and Rusty Wallace. These eight drivers have combined for 27 Cup championships.
Kenseth's relationship with current general manager Robbie Reiser, like Kenseth a native of Wisconsin, dates at least to 1997, when Kenseth first drove Reiser's No. 17 entry. It was eventually merged into the Roush organization, and Reiser became Kenseth's crew chief at Roush in 2000, Kenseth's rookie season.
"Matt and I broke into this sport together, learned the ropes and were able to bring home a championship," Reiser said. "Over the 20 years we have worked with each other, Matt has been a fierce competitor and become a close friend, not only for me, but as a mentor to young drivers like Ricky. I wish Matt nothing but the best for the next phase of his career, and know that we'll remain close."
There was speculation last weekend at Sonoma that Kenseth was leaving to join JGR, which is in a contract year with Logano. The team also has room to expand to a fourth car, and it is possible Gibbs officials are trying to move Kenseth in and keep Logano at the same time. Gibbs himself said June 17 at Michigan that he planned to re-sign the 22-year-old Logano.
"Obviously, we've been together for a long time," Gibbs said that day. "We've got a lot invested. He's our guy and we plan on going forward ... right now in the 20 car."
Team president J.D. Gibbs did not respond to a request for a comment Tuesday, and said at Sonoma he could not talk about Kenseth.
Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing, said the blue oval brand is disappointed Kenseth is leaving.
"He will be certainly missed by us and the Ford Racing fans," Allison said. "We are thankful for Matt's winning efforts and championship-caliber success with the Roush and Ford racing programs these past 16 years, both on and off the track. We will focus on this year and look forward to more success on the track in his No. 17 Ford Fusion this season."
Kenseth's car has had sponsorship woes the last few years, and Roush is funding a large portion of this year's schedule himself for the 40-year-old Kenseth. The organization dropped David Ragan and its fourth team because of a lack of sponsorship at the end of last season, and also ponied up significant money to re-sign Carl Edwards last season. Roush also signed Biffle to a contract extension last season.
The team desperately needs a slot for the 24-year-old Stenhouse, who is locked into a long-term contract but has nowhere to go in Roush's Cup lineup. The organization has a similar problem with 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, who is also in a long-term contract and had his Nationwide Series team shuttered earlier this season because of a lack of funding.
Stenhouse will be far cheaper than Kenseth in terms of salary, and he is much younger and clearly has a future with the organization.
"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 said of Stenhouse. "Roush Fenway is an organization 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."
Stenhouse told ESPN.com Tuesday the Roush Fenway organization was preparing to field a fourth car for him next season, but he was "excited and shocked" when team president Steve Newmark called late last week to tell him he would in fact replace Kenseth, who was moving on to a new opportunity.
"I wasn't expecting it to be this way," Stenhouse said from his childhood home in Mississippi. "It's bittersweet. Matt helped me a lot throughout my Nationwide career with advice and pointers, so him not being there will be a little different.
"But it's a great opportunity for me. I don't look at it as replacing Matt, more just being another part of the Roush legacy. Jack has had Matt there for 15 years. I want to be the next guy that's there for a long time. Jack really takes care of his drivers and Ford does, too."
It's unusual, though, for a team and driver to decide to part ways during a championship run. Roush technically has three shots at the Sprint Cup title, as Biffle has proven to be just as strong as Kenseth this season. And Edwards, who tied Stewart last year for the championship but lost the title on a tie-breaker, could still qualify for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
Roush, meanwhile, doesn't think Kenseth's departure will hurt the No. 17 team's championship hopes.
"The No. 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," he said. "I have no doubt that Matt will do his part."
Stenhouse, who said he doesn't know Kenseth's destination, had to keep quiet for days. He didn't even tell his parents until Sunday night. And when he did, he said his parents didn't process the news.
"I don't think they realized until today really what that meant," he said. "When I got the news, I was like, 'Wow.' They said 'wow' today."
Stenhouse said he must remain focused on this season's goal -- to repeat as Nationwide Series champion.
"It's tough to get the news now -- the Nationwide championship is the No. 1 thing at this point," he said. "I can't let this become a distraction. I can't be looking at what I'm doing next year, as far as things changing. We have points to make up.
"If we were way ahead I might have a different outlook on it, but we want another championship right now. I'm hungry for that."
Stenhouse says he'll lobby for car No. 6 -- instead of Kenseth's current No. 17 -- and expects Roush Fenway to add Sprint Cup events to his 2012 schedule in the effort to prepare him for next year. He said there have been no discussions yet as to which races those might be.
"That was neat of Matt to give me congratulations," he said. "As for Tony, I will say, he's busy. He's running his dirt car. And I'm jealous."
Information from The Associated Press, ESPN.com senior writer David Newton, ESPN.com's Marty Smith and ESPN Stats & Information was used in this report.