HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Matt Kenseth has a difficult time envisioning himself driving the No. 20, which he still views as Tony Stewart's car. Every time he sees that vehicle on the race track, especially in its orange and white Home Depot colors, he half-expects to find a certain three-time series champion looking back at him.
"I still think about it as being his ride, sort of," Kenseth said.
Which is why it seems somewhat appropriate, then, that the 2003 champion of NASCAR's top division will take over that same No. 20 car next season when he moves to Joe Gibbs Racing. As soft-spoken as he can be, as dry-witted hilarious as he often is, Kenseth is a veteran driver with exceptionally high standards who takes ownership of his race team, to the point where some personnel moves are his own. And next year he will move to a program with two younger drivers that hasn't had a bona fide leader since -- well, the days when Stewart wore orange and white.
So much of the examination of this move has been about what Joe Gibbs Racing can bring to Kenseth, who has become accustomed to a certain level of performance and success during his long tenure at Roush Fenway Racing. And certainly, Gibbs is a top-flight organization capable of putting its newest driver in cars that can contend for race wins and championships, just as it's done in recent years for incumbents Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. But not to be overlooked is what Kenseth brings to Gibbs, a program that despite its prodigious driver talent occasionally tends to underachieve, and at times might benefit from a more seasoned voice from behind the wheel.
Kenseth certainly brings that, in addition to all the other intangibles that make him such an ideal pickup for the Gibbs team. "We don't really look at guys based on age," team president J.D. Gibbs said, understood in a sport where Joey Logano and Mark Martin can run side-by-side. So JGR may not necessarily have been looking to bring in a leader when it began talks with Kenseth. But it found one nonetheless.
"I think Matt knows what he wants," Hamlin said. "I think he knows what it takes to win a championship, obviously, and he's not going to settle for anything less. You take the changes in crew chiefs that he's had, and it's all been for the better. So he knows how to assemble a team as good as anyone."
Now, none of this is meant as a knock against Busch or Hamlin, the former of whom might possess the most innate talent of anyone else in the garage area, and the latter of whom won his fourth race of the season last weekend and is on track to become the top seed in the Chase. But Joe Gibbs tells a story about his drivers trying to coach the now-outgoing Logano at Dover, and Busch's advice was simply "go into [Turn] 1 and mash it." Hamlin sounds open to the idea of another voice in weekly team debriefs. This is an organization that's had its issues in the Chase. There clearly seems room for a veteran presence, if not space for someone to claim an outright leadership role.
That is, if Kenseth wants it. "I'll be interested to see what his role is within this team when we start to have talks and do debriefs and things like that," Hamlin said. "I've never talked nuts and bolts with Matt, so that's going to be a fun aspect. Because I really know, after every practice, or after everything, what's going to come out of Kyle's mouth. I know what's going to come out of Joey's before they even say it. That's what the exciting part is going to be, hearing what he has to say."
Clearly, there's enthusiasm for Kenseth within the Gibbs shop. Busch said he first met Kenseth when his older brother Kurt drove for the Roush team, and they've been friends ever since. Hamlin is curious as to whether Kenseth will want to play an active role in determining the team's direction -- which might be a given, seeing how hands-on he's been with his No. 17 team at Roush. Everyone's eager to compare notes on the Gibbs cars versus those Kenseth is driving now. Kenseth's experience level and track record means "people are going to open their ears and eyes a little bit more to Kenseth than what they did to Joey," Hamlin said.
Does all that add up to a team leader? Given that Kenseth still has 11 races remaining with his current ride at Roush, it might be a little early to tell. But if that evolution were to occur, Gibbs' current oldest driver would seem to welcome it.
"I would have no problem with it, for sure," said Hamlin, 31. "I've been working close with our internal guys here at Gibbs on our direction for the last few years, and so trust me -- if he's got the best feedback, then we're going to listen to that. Because when you look at Roush, and when they've had their peaks and valleys, he's always at the top of the organization. So he knows how to gets the most out of what he's got. So I'm willing to relinquish whatever role I have to make sure we have the best race cars on the track. If it's him directing our guys to that, then that's good with me."
For Kenseth, 40, everything is a step-by-step process. Cognizant of who his current employers are, he referred to the Roush team as "we" during his introductory press conference Tuesday at the Gibbs shop. After this season ends, his primary goal will be to get better acquainted with the guys on the No. 20 team, in particular new crew chief Jason Ratcliff. There might be little stumbling blocks, like how fast Kenseth talks over the radio -- which occasionally led current crew chief Jimmy Fennig to ask engineer Chip Bolin for translation. Once wheels begin to turn again, focus shifts to sharing ideas with teammates and trying to get the cars running as well as possible.
Should all that unfold smoothly, then they might get around to the leadership talk. In the meantime, Hamlin remembers what it was like when Busch first arrived at Gibbs in 2008, and the two drivers found themselves trying to top each other during a test at Atlanta. "I think that Kenseth is just going to do that again," Hamlin said. "So I think it's going to force both of us to raise our games." Which is exactly what a leader should do.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Matt Kenseth
- Joe Gibbs Racing
- Denny Hamlin