New beginning – Kenseth excited about future with Gibbs’ No. 20
By RICK MINTER
Change is one of the constants in NASCAR, but it still seemed strange for many to see Matt Kenseth, who spent all but two of his NASCAR starts with Jack Roush or longtime Roush employee Robbie Reiser as his car owner, driving Joe Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota in two recent test sessions.
Kenseth stunned the NASCAR world, including Roush himself, last year when he announced while atop the Sprint Cup points standings that he was swapping teams.
Kenseth had a strong lame-duck run at Roush, making the Chase and winning two of the final 10 races. Even so, he showed no hint of regret at his decision and seemed to be looking only forward as he met with reporters during a recent test at Daytona International Speedway.
“Everything has been really great,” he said of his transition. “I don’t think it could be any better.”
He said the full story won’t be known until after a few points-paying races.
“The results pretty much tell the story, and we’re a few months away from really seeing results,” he said. “I’ve been extremely encouraged. I’m really optimistic about the season, really like my group and really like the way they do things over at JGR [Joe Gibbs Racing] and the cars.”
Kenseth backed away from drawing comparisons between the Fords he drove for Roush and the Toyotas he’s driving for Gibbs, pointing out that since all NASCAR entries have been dramatically changed since last year that there’s no fair comparison to be made.
“I’m looking 100 percent forward and not looking back, so it’s not really fair to compare anything,” he said. “But, I will say both tests so far my cars have been really fast. I really like how they drive. I really like how they react to change, and I’ve been pretty encouraged with how everything has been going so far.”
He’s also looking forward to working with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who have had great success driving Gibbs’ cars.
“There are not many people that win more races than those guys, so I’m excited to work with them and learn from them and hopefully be able to contribute as well,” he said, adding that he hasn’t learned anything surprising about his new teammates.
“We haven’t been out on a date or anything yet with either one of them so I haven’t really learned anything on a personal level,” he said. “Just been working on racing stuff.”
Kenseth did say he’s spent some time getting to know his new crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, and that’s important because having good chemistry between a driver and crew chief plays a major part in the success of a race team.
Ratcliff, who had built a strong resume as a crew chief in the Nationwide Series, spent last season as a Cup crew chief on the No. 20 Toyota, which was driven by Joey Logano, who has moved to the No. 22 Ford at Penske Racing. Kenseth said he and Ratcliff, who started his career as a mechanic and tire changer for Sadler Racing in 1995 and first became a crew chief in 1999, have tried to spend some time together away from the race track.
“I have been getting to know him a lot more on a personal level, and just trying to get to know each other a little bit as not just a driver-crew chief relationship, but kind of build a relationship there so we know each other a little bit,” Kenseth said. “I’ve really enjoyed that, and again we haven’t raced together yet, but I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him this winter and spend some time at the shop and spend some time at the track at Charlotte and [at Daytona] as well.”
The on-track results have been fairly encouraging so far. Kenseth topped the charts on the final day of testing at Daytona with a lap at 194.062 miles per hour and was 13th fastest in last week’s rain-shortened test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a lap at 192.143 mph.