Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday March 12, 2013
Jumping from one successful team to another is always a major decision and rarely anything but a risk. While opportunity could certainly exist at the end of the rainbow, misfortune could also lurk around the corner, rearing its ugly head at all possible occasions and causing one to wish they had stayed put.
Three races into the 2013 season, I think Matt Kenseth is already fairly proud of his decision to shake things up.
After a career spent at Roush Fenway Racing, ranging over a decade the 2003 NASCAR champion left the organization that gave him his first shot in favor of Joe Gibbs Racing and its No. 20 Toyota. The move wasn’t exactly frowned upon, but it did cause discussion within the NASCAR ranks. After all, Kenseth wasn’t struggling at Roush; in fact, his final season in the No. 17 Ford produced three wins and a seventh in the final point standings. Not a bad year.
Turns out the 41-year-old is proving he has the foresight to make some fairly nice decisions. Along with last weekend’s win at Las Vegas, Kenseth placed seventh at Phoenix and led 86 laps at Daytona before retiring with engine failure.
It’s as though a fire has been lit under this veteran, one that could threaten to smoke the rest of the competition in 2013. It’s rare to see a competitor win another championship so many years after his last, but he’s off to a good start.
If Kenseth wants to score that title, though recent history actually isn’t on his side. Since 2000, the highest points finish for a driver in a brand new ride is second, and that was literally only just accomplished — Clint Bowyer took the runner-up spot in 2012 after moving to Michael Waltrip Racing from Richard Childress Racing.
In fact, the recent trend is much the opposite. Before Bowyer, ringing in one’s new ride with some championship style results wasn’t exactly too common. Kasey Kahne’s debut season with Hendrick Motorsports saw him fourth last season, and Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman broke in the new organization with sixth- and ninth-place finishes in 2009, respectively while Mark Martin ran runner-up with Hendrick Motorsports. Kyle Busch scored 10th by 2008’s end in his new Joe Gibbs Racing ride. But none of those drivers (even Martin, who ran light years behind Jimmie Johnson that year) were true contenders for the big title when it counted. The last person to finish with NASCAR’s championship hardware, in their first season with a new team was Darrell Waltrip, driving for Junior Johnson in 1981.
Actually, if there’s anyone’s season Kenseth wants his 2013 to follow, it might be Busch when he came over to Gibbs. Despite a modest showing in the points, he won eight races, finished in the top five 17 times and earned 21 top-10s. Let’s go with the wins and accolades of Busch over the consistency and subsequent points finish of Bowyer.
At the very least, chances are Kenseth — and Joey Logano, the other high profile defector in 2013 — will slightly improve on his 2012 season, which if you’ll recall wasn’t that bad to begin with. One of the only marked cases of a major step down in results after joining a new team is Kurt Busch, whose 2006 campaign with Penske Racing is one he’d probably soon forget — a win, seven top-fives and 12 top-10s after 3-9-18 in those stat categories the previous year while driving for Roush Fenway Racing. The same rings true for Jamie McMurray, who replaced Busch at Roush that year. He only managed three top-fives and seven top-10s, placing a lousy 25th in the overall standings. That’s a major drop from his 12th the year before with Ganassi.
A first year in the new digs is mostly thought of as a trial period, or an intro. You’re not expected to go HAM on the season, but there’s the expectation of major results in subsequent years. If anything, drivers want to see something better than what they had with the old organization, if they left on their own accord.
Most guys haven’t had a tough time besting prior results, and Matt Kenseth looks to be accomplishing more of the same, if the first three races are any indication. Heck, I’m more interested in seeing what Joey Logano can do in the No. 22 for Penske. While not a huge factor in 2012, he at least won a race. Now? No good results of which to speak of.
Well, he is with Penske, and if you’ll recall Kurt Busch’s “meh” results during his debut in the No. 2 a few paragraphs ago… maybe there’s a trend?
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