Previews, predictions and stats for Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 team
Matt Kenseth isn’t apprehensive about his surprising decision to leave Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing this season. Things just weren’t coming together when Kenseth, fresh off his 2012 Daytona 500 win, tried to re-sign with the team. Sponsorship for 2013 wasn’t streaming in, and commitments weren’t set in stone. And maybe most important, the offer of a full-time ride with solid long-term backing to drive the powerful Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota looked awfully appealing.
“When I talked to Joe (Gibbs) and J.D. (Gibbs) and went and saw some of their stuff and spent some time with them, I just really felt like that was the right place for me,” Kenseth says.
But while he’s ready to embrace his new home, there is naturally a bit of anxiety involved with the move.
“All the stuff is different,” Kenseth says. “There’s a little bit of anxiety over that, just because you’re real comfortable for where I’ve been for so many years, and I’m not usually a guy that likes change.”
That much was obvious, seeing as Kenseth has spent the first 13 seasons of his full-time Cup Series career with the same team, same car number and same manufacturer. None of it will look or feel the same when he lines up for the Daytona 500. “But, on the other hand, it’s also really, really exciting,” Kenseth adds.
In this case, an old dog sure can learn new tricks. This year could be exciting for Kenseth as he takes over a seat once held by Tony Stewart with an organization that has totaled 23 Cup wins in the past three seasons (RFR has 14 in that same time frame). Kenseth, fresh off a three-win season himself and yet another go at the Chase for the Sprint Cup, brings plenty to the table in replacing Joey Logano in one of the most appealing seats on the circuit.
New teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch can’t wait to work with an established contender like Kenseth, who can provide solid, veteran leadership to a three-car team that has lacked that from a driver since Stewart’s departure.
“I really like Joey (Logano) and I know he can help us,” Busch says. “But how much more can Matt help us become a much stronger organization all the way around? He’s a former champion who has won a lot of races and is capable of running well every week.”
Hamlin went so far as to lobby for Kenseth and the team’s management to come to an agreement.
“I was one that definitely pushed for Matt to come over to Gibbs, and I just think that he’s really going to mesh well with me and Kyle,” Hamlin says. “I know that Kyle does a lot of short-track racing with Matt’s son (Ross), and I know that me and Matt have very similar driving styles on the racetrack.”
That feeling, as expected, is mutual. In listening to the drivers, teamwork won’t be a problem for the group.
“Denny wins all of the time. Kyle wins all the time,” Kenseth says. “I was just really interested to be a part of that group and go over there and see if I can contribute to that.”
Kenseth sets sail for the first time in his Toyota with primary sponsor support from Dollar General and Home Depot’s Husky brand under the guidance of returning No. 20 crew chief Jason Ratcliff, a veteran of leading JGR’s Nationwide Series ranks who moved to the No. 20 last year and picked up a win with Logano.
On paper, Ratcliff should have little trouble collaborating with Kenseth, even though the two didn’t work together until winter testing. NASCAR’s relaxed policy in that regard is a big help for the mutual learning curve Kenseth and JGR face. A point to keep in mind, though, is that Kenseth was finicky about his crew chiefs while at RFR. He found success when the chemistry clicked with Robbie Reiser and, later, with Jimmy Fennig. But in between the two, there was an 88-race stretch that witnessed only two wins.
Still, Kenseth was hired by JGR thanks to his sterling reputation as a known commodity, so if a change needs to be addressed, it will be.
His ability to contend for wins and consistently perform drew the JGR brass toward him, and there’s little doubt he’ll prove them right. Watching his influence on his younger teammates will be a much more interesting element.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Matt Kenseth gets high marks from those in the garage even though he’ll most likely need some time to get acclimated at his new home at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“If anyone in the garage deserves to be called a quiet assassin it’s Kenseth,” one crew chief says. “He goes about his business as unassumingly as you can, but is always there to strike at the end of the race. What people don’t see is just how intense he really is. His dry sense of humor can come across as though he isn’t, but there isn’t anyone in the garage who is more focused on his job than Kenseth. His success as a lame duck at Roush should be evidence enough of that.”
A NASCAR journalist points out that Kenseth’s value to Roush Fenway Racing may have been discounted, but it will not be that way at JGR:
“Kenseth outperformed Carl Edwards big-time last season, and Carl was getting paid a lot more. Throw in the fact that Kenseth did so as a lame duck and it tells you how good he really is. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone, right? … The question is how he and (crew chief Jason) Ratcliff hit it off. If the chemistry takes off, he’ll outshine his two new Gibbs teammates.”
Looking at Checkers: These things run in cycles — and Roush certainly hit on something — but it’s impossible to ignore Kenseth’s 2.0-place average showing on the plate tracks in 2012.
Pretty Solid Pick: As a Roushian he always brought it at Charlotte and Texas.
Good Sleeper Pick: Check out Kenseth’s eight top 10s in his last 10 Bristol starts.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Unlike his new teammate, Denny Hamlin, Kenseth has room for improvement on the flat tracks, especially in the CoT era. And of course, there are the roadies.
Insider Tip: Kenseth has finished outside of the top 8 in the standings twice in the last 11 years. Both instances occurred post-Reiser and pre-Fennig. His chemistry with Jason Ratcliff will be of the utmost importance.
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