COMMENTARY | Good drivers aren't hard to come by. There's a ton of talented competitors in lower series just waiting for the right opportunity to show they have the goods to compete in Cup.
Good leaders, on the other hand, are hard to find. You can have all the talent in the world, but without a strong team leader, it's unlikely you're going to win any championships at the Cup level.
Joe Gibbs Racing has had top talent for many years, and during the time Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte were with the team they were able to take home a few Cup titles.
But for the past few years, the team has lacked leadership. Kyle Busch may be the most talented driver currently competing in NASCAR, but he's not really a team leader. It's all about him.
Denny Hamlin, also a tremendous talent, doesn't exactly come off as a driver who will rally the troops back at the garage.
The team's third driver for the past few years, Joey Logano, well he was just a kid, literally coming up to the big leagues as a teenager.
So when the team signed Matt Kenseth to replace Logano for 2013, the competition should have instantly been worried. See, Matt Kenseth is a champion. He has only one Cup title (back in 2003, the last year before the Chase), but during his long career with Roush Racing he was pretty much always contending for wins, and regularly a threat to be champion again. He was just one of those guys you could count on making his way to the front every week, even if he didn't win a ton of races every year (Saturday's win is his 27th career victory).
Most importantly, Matt is not just a strong driver, he's a guy who has lots of experience and can pass on that knowledge to his teammates. If you don't think that Joe Gibbs Racing improved a ton instantly by replacing Logano with Kenseth, you're out of your mind. That's not a slight to Logano, who is a talent in his own way, it's just a huge credit to Kenseth.
Though Kenseth said his decision to leave wasn't about money, I don't buy it. I would bet that Jack Roush had a chance to match whatever offer Kenseth got from JGR and didn't pony up the cash because using Ricky Stenhouse in the 17 car would be a much more affordable alternative. And I would bet that right now Roush wishes he would have done everything he had to do to keep Kenseth in the Roush fold.
Watching Kenseth repeatedly make it to Victory Lane in 2013 driving Toyotas must be a sting to Roush, who brought Kenseth up to the big leagues almost 15 years ago. He was like part of the family, and then he left and is beating the Roush cars to the checkered flag most weeks.
(One side note: Matt Kenseth's son Ross is a chip off the old block, winning at South Boston Speedway on Saturday night before his dad did the same thing at Darlington. Maybe we'll see Ross up on the big stage one day doing the same things as dad. After all, NASCAR has a good history of sons following in their dads' footsteps)
Getting back to Gibbs, though, Kenseth may just be that key that gets Joe Gibbs Racing over the hump they can't seem to climb lately and push them to a Sprint Cup title. Honestly, all three Gibbs cars are legitimate contenders this year, and you can bet the enthusiasm and knowledge a driver like Matt Kenseth brought to the team has a lot to do with the team's success in 2013.
Kenseth had a truly awesome week, topping off the reduction to his points penalty with this victory.
He said after Saturday's win that he "only dreamed about winning the Southern 500", and this huge victory at this historic track will only boost his confidence even more. It's a safe bet that Kenseth will add several more trips to Victory Lane to the three he's already earned this season. In my view he is the odds-on favorite to win the Cup at this point in time (and those bonus points for the wins will be very nice to have come November).
Denny Hamlin is in a tough spot, having missed some races, but he finished 2nd in the Darlington race, fresh off his back injury, and is going to make a return to the top 20 in points in the very near future, barring crashes/mechanical failures. He's a fast driver in a fast car, and if he can pull off a couple wins and get into that top 20, he'll likely make the Chase as a wild card. From there, between his ability and help from a veteran teammate like Kenseth, anything is possible.
Kyle Busch, who dominated Saturday at Darlington (he led 265 laps) before falling out of the top-5 in the closing laps due to a cut tire, has his best shot ever at a title this year. Busch still has to master the consistency needed to truly compete for a title, but with a teammate like Kenseth (who has won a championship) there to help him along the way, I think Kyle will be more likely to succeed this season. He just has to avoid the mishaps and parts failures that have doomed his past title hopes.
While discussing his win after the race Saturday, Kenseth summed it up well:
"Gosh, I couldn't feel much better about our year so far."
And I'm pretty sure Joe Gibbs couldn't feel much better about his decision to hire Matt Kenseth.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Joe Gibbs Racing
- Matt Kenseth
- Kyle Busch