Is Matt Kenseth Joe Gibbs Racing's Missing Piece?

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Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Kansas Speedway.

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<p> Reaction from NASCAR's weekend at Kansas Speedway.</p>

Two years ago, J.D. Gibbs came within a front bumper of stealing Carl Edwards away from Roush Fenway Racing. Then Ford’s hot young star, Edwards would have bumped Joey Logano out of the No. 20 ride to the tune of a reported $10 million.

Turns out, that could be the best money Gibbs ever saved.

What happened? Edwards got a sweeter deal, including stock options from Ford, to remain at RFR, then came within a whisker of the championship (losing to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker). But he’s won just once since, stuck in rebuilding mode after losing longtime crew chief Bob Osborne, and hasn’t found a full-time sponsor to replace AFLAC, causing multiple companies — and occasionally Ford itself — to foot the bill.

In the meantime, the money thrown at Edwards, combined with patchwork sponsorship for Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 effort, made the latter ripe for the taking. JGR, with Logano still struggling a year later, grabbed Kenseth for an undisclosed amount – but likely a fraction of the Edwards price — saving backer Home Depot from potentially jumping ship completely. In the meantime, Gibbs’ outgoing driver won once more before handing the keys to a car that desperately needed a veteran’s help.

Where are we now, eight races in? Kansas’ Victory Lane offers a clue as we go Through the Gears:


FIRST GEAR: Matt Kenseth could be Joe Gibbs Racing’s missing piece.
Observers felt that Kenseth, looking for a fresh start after 13 years with Roush Fenway Racing, would click with the No. 20 team. But no one expected this type of start: two wins and six races led in eight starts for a team that’s been downright dominant at times. A driver known for consistency as opposed to controlling races, Kenseth already has led more laps this season (482) than he did throughout all of 2012. And it’s not like he was off the pace in his last year with RFR; Kenseth captured three victories, including the Daytona 500, and landed seventh in series points.

“I think it can always go better but things have been pretty good from a performance standpoint,” was his comment on Sunday concerning 2013. “I’m really, really happy. I think as an organization one of our cars — if all the stars would have aligned — could have won every race this year if everything would have worked out.”

Compare that to Roush Fenway Racing, which has half the wins and just 207 laps led thus far. How ironic was it that Kenseth’s final on-track pass for the lead came at the hands of his old car, the No. 17 driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Clearly, JGR got itself the better end of the deal, one it feels includes a leader within its stable of high-profile drivers.

For Kenseth, it’s more that the pressure’s off, with sponsorship secure and no mentoring needed for teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The 2003 Cup champ has 10 times the experience than Logano, and add in top-15 finishes so far this season at every track that also hosts a Chase date (even Martinsville, once kryptonite), and it’s clear this addition could bring not just the 20 team, but the entire JGR organization into serious title contention this fall.


SECOND GEAR: Kyle Busch is cursed by Kansas.
Everyone talks about Kyle Busch’s newfound maturity. But the one person Busch still needs to see, fresh off an Anger Management appearance with Charlie Sheen, is a wizard. Kansas Speedway has been Busch’s Achilles Heel, the one track where he has yet to score a top-5 finish and a place where he’s been cursed for two-plus years. The spell was in full effect this weekend, as Busch wrecked three times — from practice through the race — en route to destroying two cars and winding up in 38th place.

“Spun twice on our own,” he quipped after the race-ending incident. “Just don’t know what to do with Kansas.”

Maybe one extra apology to David Reutimann would be a start. That driver, angry over the way Busch bumped him out of the way at Bristol in 2010, chose to get his revenge at Kansas later that season — at a crucial point in the Chase — which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back on Busch’s title run. The Las Vegas native was wrecked by Reutimann, ran 21st and has done no better than 10th at the 1.5-mile oval since.

That remnant of “Old Kyle,” along with the mental frustration attached to it, still comes out on The Plains. That needs to stop, considering this track’s second date remains smack dab in the middle of the Chase.


THIRD GEAR: There is such a thing as too fast.
While Kansas put on a far better race compared to Texas a week ago, both experienced the same set of problems that hindered side-by-side competition. Average speeds in both cases were well over 190 miles an hour; straightaway speeds at Kansas approached 210. If NASCAR saw that high of a number at Daytona — considering what happened in February — restrictor plates would be replaced with parachutes attached to each car’s rear end.

So why didn’t NASCAR even blink at Kansas? For now, its answer to “slowing the cars down” is providing a safe, rock-hard Goodyear tire compound so that if a driver spins, it’s his or her own fault — sort of a weird way to deflect blame. But considering that’s exactly what’s happening — half-a-dozen cars spun out on their own Sunday — isn’t the risk failing to provide a reward? With the current compounds, cars can run upwards of 200 laps on left-side tires and have little to no falloff. That makes a car like Kenseth’s the best all day unless you can nip it through pit strategy to gain track position, which limits passing and excitement for fans.

The Gen-6 car, when provided a softer tire compound, has proven to be racier than the Car of Tomorrow. Restarts at Kansas showed its true potential, with cars four-wide at times in the desperate battle to gain positions before everyone bottomed out at the same speed. The pieces of the puzzle are there, NASCAR just has to find a way to slow the cars and pair them with a softer compound tire so the drivers can actually use them to their advantage.
 

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