I don’t know that I’ve had a win that feels bigger than this at the moment.
– Matt Kenseth, in May, after the Southern 500
The bombshell dropped at the end of June last summer, and it was seismic. Matt Kenseth, leaving the Roush Fenway Racing fold for the Joe Gibbs Racing fold? After 13 seasons, 24 victories, one Sprint Cup championship and four other top-five points runs? After 17 years with general manager Robbie Reiser?
The news left heads spinning in the garage, and on the heels of that came the obvious question: What was the man thinking?
He had, after all, won the Daytona 500 and was leading the points again for Jack Roush as June gave way to July, so it was all good on the track. And there was no apparent friction between Kenseth and anyone in the Roush organization. And if he were going to end a racing marriage that had lasted longer than any in Sprint Cup besides Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports, why now, with NASCAR about to introduce a new car (the Generation 6) for 2013?
Curious stuff. Even more curious: Kenseth sought no one’s advice except his wife’s.
Nobody, he said after winning at Kansas in April. I didn’t talk to anybody about it but Katie. I didn’t really tell anybody else about it. I really didn’t need to. It wasn’t really a hard decision, believe it or not.
Nor, wonder of wonders, has it been a hard transition.
The move from Roush Fenway to Gibbs – and from Ford to Toyota – bore immediate fruit, with Kenseth putting up a solid fifth at Daytona. Two races later he put his new No. 20 Toyota in Victory Lane for the first time at Las Vegas. Then came the win at Kansas, and then, in May, the self-described Big Win in the Southern 500 at Darlington.
In truth, though, the entire season has been a Big Win.
Living the dream, yeah, Kenseth said after Kansas.
The dream or something better. At Gibbs, Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff hit it off almost immediately. The wrench jockeys and slide-rule boys have given him fast, reliable cars from the jump. As everyone heads to Indianapolis and the Brickyard 400, Kenseth is tied for sixth in the points with teammate Kyle Busch, tied with Jimmie Johnson for most victories this season (four), and is third behind Busch and Johnson in laps led with 1,020. No one besides those three has led more than 411.
As if Kenseth ever doubted it would be so.
Did I expect this? I kind of did, he said after Kansas, where NASCAR hit the Kenseth team hard for a miniscule engine infraction, only to dramatically reduce the penalties after appeal. I couldn’t have had a better feeling about it when I decided to do it, and certainly that feeling hasn’t changed. I feel like it’s a special group. I think Jason is a special guy. It’s a special organization, and, man, they’ve got some great race cars.
That’s good news for Kenseth going to Indy, a place that has never been kind to him. In 13 starts there, he has one top five and two top 10s, and his average finish is 20th. Last year he finished 35th.
Not that that will cause anyone at Joe Gibbs Racing to blink twice.
You know, I knew Matt pretty well from before, co-owner J.D. Gibbs said. He’s a good leader. I think Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle really like having him here, hearing what he has to say. On the racetrack, he just has a gift.
So I think it’s really been a blessing to have him join our team.
Right back at ya, says Kenseth.
I feel like the 20 is my car now, he said. I really feel like with this team, driving this car, the sky’s the limit.