Matt Kenseth blew away most expectations in his first go-round with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013.
His series-leading seven race wins and runner-up finish in the point standings were simply outstanding. They made Kenseth’s preseason nerves about the switch — he said in December 2012 that he actually got nervous about hopping in the new Toyotas after spending his entire Sprint Cup career at Roush Fenway Racing, later kicking himself for causing an engine problem during a test — seem almost laughable.
Kenseth was sensational from the start, looking like a good bet to win the Daytona 500 before his engine gave way just past halfway, and he held an edge on Jimmie Johnson through much of the Chase. Only a whiffed setup in the penultimate race kept him from going head-to-head with Johnson in the season finale. Otherwise, Kenseth very easily could have been walking away from NASCAR’s December awards banquet in Las Vegas with the sport’s largest haul of all. It was a career year in every sense of the word.
It leaves us with little doubt that Kenseth will vie for the title again this year.
However, his strength in 2013 should bring a new set of nerves for the 2003 Sprint Cup champion. The dynamite campaign has launched him from an interesting hire at JGR to presumed leader of both that team and the Toyota brigade in general. A run deep into the Chase for the Sprint Cup and the season title will be expected. Taking the championship wouldn’t be a surprise.
It’s an interesting place for the soon-to-be 42-year-old, who didn’t handle that role well when anointed RFR’s leader in 2007. But it’s a role that Kenseth is well-suited for now based both on his personal career progression and the unrelenting nature of JGR.
Kenseth’s seven wins in 2013 were a career peak, putting him at 13 total victories in the last three seasons. Last year also featured the best average starting position of the Wisconsin driver’s career — 8.7, a number that led the series. Not bad for a guy whose lifetime average is a mediocre 18.5. Not only was Kenseth starting closer to the front than ever before, but he also had, on average, a better pit road selection as a result of his strengthened early-weekend performances. That’s crucial for the track position he earned and must maintain in NASCAR’s hyper-competitive new world. Kenseth was both holding and picking up spots on pit road more than ever — a key difference in a race’s final throes.
JGR itself remains just a break or two from scoring its first title since Tony Stewart last won one for the organization in 2005. Kenseth’s teammate, Kyle Busch, put together the most splendid season he’s had in terms of consistency and Chase legitimacy. It produced Busch’s best-ever finish (fourth) in the Chase standings.
Kenseth’s other teammate, Denny Hamlin, likely would have been a Chase contender had he not suffered a back injury at Auto Club Speedway in the spring that forced him to the sidelines for five races.
Hamlin’s setback could be pivotal for the JGR group going forward, however. Once it was clear that Hamlin wasn’t going to be a Chase participant, he became little more than an experimental pilot for the team. There were days when it showed — Hamlin spent much of the back half of the season battling an out-to-lunch race car with little fanfare — but then there was also the terrific season finale for No. 11 that resulted in a win.
We’ll never know the full impact of Hamlin’s experimental work for JGR, at least not yet. However, engineers are the lifeblood of fast cars in today’s NASCAR, and engineers live on data. The more they have, the more accurate shock adjustment or front-end geometry can be. As long as NASCAR’s offseason changes to the Gen-6 car don’t throw all that completely data out the window, expect them to come out of the box full speed ahead.
However, even major changes from NASCAR should not impact Kenseth terribly this year. We know how good the organization is, and 2013 showed just how good a driver with a fresh perspective could be with great equipment.
Perhaps there’s a small mental hurdle for Kenseth to clear in that, as he turns 42 this year, last season’s run might have been his last, best chance for a title. His even-keeled personality makes that unlikely, though. A seven-win campaign will be tough to duplicate, but don’t be surprised if he and the No. 20 team are in the hunt in Homestead once again.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
Matt Kenseth answered any questions about his new gig at Joe Gibbs Racing with a resounding debut season in the No. 20 Toyota.
“When the door shuts, he is always there,” one crew chief shrugged matter-of-factly. “He’s a closer. He’s sneaky. He’s sly, but he’s very clean. Kenseth is a very productive race car driver.”
“He needs to work on Phoenix, though!” another joked. “Look, except for that one race he was always there last year. He was ‘game on’ and even his qualifying efforts were good. I don’t know if there is anything else they need — put a fourth coat of wax on it and he’s good.”
A media member points out that Kenseth may have actually found a deeper level of maturity last year: “Remember when he and Vickers went at it in Martinsville in 2011 during the Chase? Kenseth still had a title shot that year, and he shot himself in the foot by stooping to (Brian) Vickers’ level. There was no self-inflicted wound last year. Yeah, the Phoenix race will haunt that team, but sans that one race, they went toe-to-toe with the 48. … There’s this myth about a championship runner-up hangover, but I don’t expect that out of Kenseth and Jason Ratcliff. They’re too solid.”
Looking at Checkers: It took 10 Cup seasons to notch a win on a plate track, but he’s been as reliable as any driver at Daytona and Talladega ever since.
Pretty Solid Pick: Ten of his 15 CoT/Gen-6 era victories — and 22 of his 31 career Cup triumphs — have come on the intermediates. This isn’t just the product of the Roush years, either.
Good Sleeper Pick: With the Loudon win out of the way, we’re guessing that Martinsville is the next supposed Achilles' heel where Kenseth cashes in.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Kenseth has totaled five top 10s in 28 career road course starts. Bob Bondurant he is not. Heck, he’s not even a Paul Newman.
Insider Tip: Save for the road courses, Kenseth is able to post wins most anywhere. He’s smart enough not to overdrive in the pursuit, though.
No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Sponsors: Dollar General/Home Depot-Husky Tools
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Jason Ratcliff
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015+
Best points finish: 1st (2003)
Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.
Born: March 10, 1972
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro