Throughout much of last season, speculation abounded that Matt Kenseth would be leaving Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing, and once September rolled around, the pair confirmed the decision. And what a decision it was for Kenseth. It took just three races for the 31-year-old and the No. 20 team to get to Victory Lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, succeeding in a race where he led just 42 laps.
Fast forward to the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday where Kenseth headed to Victory Lane, with Kasey Kahne in tow, for the second time in just six races. And it wasn’t like he popped up late in the running and capitalized when it mattered most. While all three of his JGR teammates struggled, posting DNFs and finishing outside the top 30, the driver of the No. 20 Toyota led a race-high 163 of 267 laps en route to the fourth win on the season for Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole.
“We started the race, and our car was unbelievable fast the first 120 laps or so,” he said after the race. “We could pretty much run out there as far as we wanted to.”
Indeed; if not for pit strategy, the No. 20 car would have led all but a small handful of miles. As it is, he’s already led 482 laps in 2013, two more than his total all of last season en route to some impressive performances to date. So what’s the secret to Kenseth’s quick success? Perhaps it really boils down to leaving Roush Fenway Racing, with whom he’d spent all but one of his 472 Sprint Cup Series starts with since joining the series in 1998. It’s not that Roush Fenway was a terrible team, but sometimes it just takes a change in environment to reinvigorate an athlete, no matter the sport. And in Kenseth’s case, his No. 20 has been incredibly focused all season after parting with Joey Logano, who had been with the organization since 2009.
“We’ve been incredibly strong—it is kind of cliche, but I really feel like I’m living a dream—this is a dream come true,” Kenseth said in Victory Lane. “This stuff—every single track, we were a little off at California, but other than that we had cars I thought that if all the stars would have aligned, then we could have won the race. We’ve been incredibly fast and I’m just so thankful to be wheeling them and glad we could hold on.”
While we’re just eight races into the season, it’s hard to say this kind of success will continue throughout the rest of 2013. However, you can easily make a case that the organization will continue its strong start. After all, Kenseth’s full-time teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, haven’t exactly struggled this year. Before he started getting involved in on-track altercations with Joey Logano, Hamlin had not finished outside the top 15, and Busch has been equally successful, posting two victories and five top-5 results.
“I think for us, I think with Denny and Kyle, what they both like about Matt, I’ve said before, is they’ve kind of given him the leadership role, and Matt is happy to take it on,” JGR President J.D. Gibbs said. “And so I think for us, it’s just a great connection.”
Kenseth, however, wasn’t quite as sure about the characterization.
“I don’t know that I’m the team leader or necessarily want to be or whatever,” he explained Sunday. “But I will say I think there’s a ton of things that intrigue me about all this. Having Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch) as teammates is one thing… I’ve been fortunate through my whole career to have a lot of really, really talented, good teammates, but one of the things I thought was so interesting and pretty much proven true is that Denny and Kyle are very different from each other and they’re both very different from me.”
Both sides also seemed willing and ready for a change. Joey Logano, while a talent in his own right didn’t provide the type of veteran “experience” the other two, after Chase swings and misses could truly learn from. On the flip side, what JGR offers Kenseth more than anything else is job security; patchwork sponsorship supported him at Roush Fenway last year even though he earned three wins, including the Daytona 500 and led the points for a large chunk of the season.
When it comes down to it, Kenseth’s move from RFR to JGR could have been what reinvigorated his career, allowing him a shot at another championship. And despite engine failures the organization suffered last year, Kenseth still has plenty of confidence in the organization.
“Our cars have been so incredibly fast all year and we don’t have all the finishes to show for it, but I’m so thankful to have another win and hopefully that will get us up there a little bit in the points,” Kenseth said. “I knew the first time I talked to these guys (JGR), I really started to feel it — these guys really are contenders. They’re an awesome race team and I’m glad to be with them.”
Of course, everything could change in the blink of an eye next weekend at Richmond. Racing luck can be a fickle beast. But the confidence in Kenseth’s voice, when discussing his prospects for long-term success speaks louder than any words ever could.
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