HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — The first word out of Matt Kenseth’s mouth, as he stepped onto the stage at Joe Gibbs Racing on Tuesday afternoon, was a facetious “Surprise!”
A surprise it wasn’t. Kenseth, team owner Joe Gibbs and JGR president J.D. Gibbs announced precisely what everyone expected they would, that Kenseth had signed to drive the No. 20 Toyota starting next season under sponsorship from Home Deport and Dollar General.
The terms of Kenseth’s contract with JGR were not revealed, and J.D. Gibbs said the organization was still working through the division of races between the two primary sponsors.
In Kenseth’s case, the real surprise came in late June, when Roush Fenway Racing announced that the driver of the No. 17 Ford had decided to leave that ride at the end of the year. Kenseth was leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings at the time, and he had accumulated 22 Cup victories in 12-plus full seasons in Roush equipment.
Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, will replace Joey Logano, who on Tuesday was announced as the new driver of the No. 22 Ford for Penske Racing next season. Logano’s current crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, will serve in the same capacity with Kenseth.
Even as he answered questions from reporters on Tuesday, Kenseth was characteristically vague about his reasons for the career move.
“I think, at the end of the day, it was a really unique opportunity,” said Kenseth, who will join Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin in JGR’s formidable Cup lineup. “I think, as a driver, you want to go somewhere where not only are you a good fit, but it’s obviously about winning races and trying to win championships, and I think you want to put yourself in a position where you think it’s going to be the most competitive going forward to try to achieve your goals.
“And I felt like this was it.”
Kenseth, 40, brings to the team a level of maturity and experience Logano, 22, has not had time to accumulate. Busch believes that experience will accrue to JGR’s benefit.
“With the time that he spent at Roush Fenway, it’s certainly a different company from what JGR is,” Busch said. “He’ll have some of that expertise that he can kind of enlighten us with. All in all, Matt’s a great racer. He comes from the sort of short-track background Denny and I do, with pavement Late Model racing and all that, coming up through the ranks into the Nationwide and into the Cup series.
“I’ve been close to Matt ever since I met him the first time, when he and my brother (Kurt Busch) were teammates (at Roush Racing). He’s always been a class act and a cool cat to hang around.”
Gibbs also tried to retain Logano’s services, but efforts to field a fourth Cup car failed to materialize, and Logano rejected an offer to run a full Nationwide and partial Cup schedule. In fact, the opening at Penske, after AJ Allmendinger’s release from the No. 22 car because of a failed drug test, is thought to be the tipping point for Logano, who views himself as a Cup driver.
“We tried a number of things trying to get it to work, so that we could keep all four (drivers), and nothing clicked,” Joe Gibbs said. “I think at the end there, we still had a package there, but when you took our package, and he had a chance to have other opportunities, he felt like one of those was better than what we had.
“There’s no question that he’s a Cup driver, and he’s passionate about that. One of the things we were trying was four (Cup) cars. We tried a little bit of everything. Originally, that’s what we were after was to keep him driving Cup, but it just didn’t work out for us.”
Lee White, president of Toyota Racing Development U.S.A., is happy to have Kenseth in the fold.
“He’s extremely intelligent and probably one of the smartest guys in the field of 43 drivers in providing feedback and helping to get your car right,” White said. “Frankly, I think the way this team works, with all three drivers and all three crew chiefs working as one, I think that potentially gives this organization a real strong bump.
“And frankly, since Tony Stewart left (after the 2008 season), that’s something they haven’t really had. This hasn’t been a three-car team, because Joey’s been a developing driver, and he’s just starting to get there as a driver. As an ambassador for our company, he’s been phenomenal. We hate to lose him in that regard because he’s been such a phenomenal ambassador, but as a competitor, he’s just hitting his stride, and it’s kind of a shame to watch that — all that investment — be passed on to someone else.”
Kenseth, on the other hand, was, in White’s words, “a slam dunk.”