Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence.
It would be hard to argue that point where Matt Kenseth is concerned.
More often than not, changing rides in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series brings a period of acclimation, as a driver learns the ropes at his new team. Oftentimes, success doesn’t come quickly or easily for the new kid on the block.
In Kenseth’s case, the transition from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing has been seamless. On Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Kenseth won his second Cup race of the season and stands eighth in points. With the exception of the race at Fontana, Calif., Kenseth has driven a car capable of winning every event this year — including Martinsville.
That’s right, Martinsville, one of Kenseth’s habitual bogey tracks. Others have noticed his marked improvement at the difficult short track, including the man who currently wears the mantle “Mr. Martinsville,” Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson originally considered Kenseth’s job change a lateral move, but Kenseth’s performance at Martinsville gave him reason to reevaluate.
“When I saw him flying at Martinsville, I realized that the car had something to do with it at that particular track,” Johnson said Sunday after running third behind Kenseth and Kasey Kahne in the STP 400.
“He’s been on the record and told me time and time again he hates that place, and having him pass me for the lead and take off, he certainly showed something there.”
Kenseth has meshed beautifully with crew chief Jason Ratcliff, one of the rising stars in the Cup garage. Ratcliff built his resume in the Nationwide Series, and with Kenseth behind the wheel, now has the ideal platform to showcase his talents at NASCAR’s highest level.
The irony is that none of this would have happened had Carl Edwards, Kenseth’s former teammate at Roush Fenway, taken the ride in the No. 20 JGR Toyota a year earlier.
Gibbs craved a driver to fill the seat of the car. Sponsor Home Depot was tired of getting spanked by the Jimmie Johnson juggernaut, carrying the livery of home-improvement rival Lowe’s. Nothing against Joey Logano, who preceded Kenseth in the 20 car, but Kenseth is a better fit for Home Depot and co-primary sponsor Dollar General.
Kenseth is a family man in his 40s. Logano is 22 and unmarried. Do the math.
But again, had the intense courtship involving JGR, Toyota and Edwards resulted in a marriage in 2011, a contract year for Edwards, Kenseth’s life would be quite different today.
To Edwards’ credit, he leveraged the bidding war for his services into a fat renewal with Roush Fenway. When Edwards wriggled off the hook at Gibbs, the team kept Logano in the car for the 2012 season but kept the search open for a driver with sufficient stature to satisfy the sponsors.
Though 2012 was a contract year for Kenseth, there was no public frenzy about his free agency, the way there had been with Edwards. To hear Kenseth tell it, there had been no substantive discussion of a contract extension with Roush as late as May of last year.
Kenseth started his first race for owner Jack Roush in 1998, won his lone Cup championship for Roush in 2003, and, rightly or wrongly, felt underappreciated, given what he perceived as a lack of attention to his contract status. That in turn made Kenseth receptive to discussions with Gibbs. An agreement with JGR came together quickly, with none of the snags that ultimately had squelched a deal with Edwards.
Seemingly, Kenseth has found a critical mass at his new job, and it’s no surprise that, just eight races into the season, he’s already being touted as one of the favorites to win the series championship.
This is one honeymoon that may last an entire year — or longer.