It has worked out great for Joe Gibbs Racing that the new guy also happens to be the old guy.
Technically, 41-year-old Matt Kenseth isn’t old. But he has 500 Cup starts, so Kenseth is richly experienced.
This is Kenseth’s first season with JGR. It has been a spectacularly successful pairing. Kenseth has won a career-best seven races, including the first two in the 10-race Chase, NASCAR’s in-season playoff.
“Honestly, if you get the right people in your organization, the rest is easy,” said J.D. Gibbs, president of JGR.
“I’m not allowed to touch any cars, touch any equipment,” Gibbs joked, “but we have a great team, and those guys — Matt and (crew chief Jason Ratcliff) — have really jelled well. They’ve helped Kyle (Busch) out and Denny (Hamlin), so it’s just been fun to be a part of the whole process.”
Kenseth and Busch have finished 1-2 in the first two Chase races — Chicagoland and New Hampshire. Busch frequently is asked about the addition of Kenseth and his stock reply is this was a no-brainer: Obvious why they pursued him, obvious why they signed him.
Kenseth and Busch are a bit of an odd couple: Busch the pugnacious competitor, Kenseth the understated worrier. Kenseth admitted to an anxiety attack over past struggles on the flat layout in New Hampshire.
He might be Busch’s biggest fan.
“What a terrible problem to have, huh?” Kenseth said of teammates competing 1-2 for the Sprint Cup. “Everybody in the garage knows there’s not a driver more talented than Kyle. It’s not tough racing him like you don’t want to race him; it’s tough racing him because you know you’re not going to be allowed many mistakes.”
They push each other, but they also support each other. Kenseth’s experience has been valuable during the group brainstorming in the days between races.
“We have three great drivers who communicate well with each other and work well together,” J.D. Gibbs described. “Matt kind of leads that off. Not that he’s old, but he’s been around quite a while, so he’s just a great part of Joe Gibbs Racing.”
Driver-crew chief pairings are fragile things. As much about personality matches as technical skill, these fix-ups can end in spectacular divorce. Kenseth and Ratcliff clicked quickly.
“I think a lot of this sport is always about combinations,” Kenseth said. “When you think of Jimmie (Johnson) and Chad (Knaus), Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon, there wasn’t anybody who could beat them.
“It has to start with the organization that has the fast cars and have all that stuff, but you’ve got to have the right group, and I’m really fortunate right now to have the right group.”
So has the old guy learned new tricks?
“I don’t feel like I’m necessarily a better driver than I was last year,” Kenseth said. “I did come in with my eyes and ears open and tried to learn as much as I can.”