There's supposed to be an assimilation process, right? The new driver comes in and spends those first few awkward weeks getting used to his new crew chief's terminology, to his new pit crew's timing, to his new spotter's voice in his ear. There are supposed to be moments when differing styles clash, when unfamiliar personalities cause friction, when just the usual procedure of transition takes its toll on speed.
Well, nobody bothered to notify Matt Kenseth. With a new team, he was unstoppable in the Daytona 500 until his engine failed him, and then he went out and won the third race of the season -- the first steps in a campaign that's thus far netted Kenseth four victories, cemented him as a favorite for the Sprint Cup championship and made his seamless move to Joe Gibbs Racing the most significant event of the sport's first half.
Oh sure, there have been some hitches -- like a missed shift in Kenseth's first test with JGR in late December, which led the team to change engines and left the new driver somewhat embarrassed. There was also the brouhaha over that below-minimum-weight connecting rod from the No. 20 car's winning Kansas engine, which proved to be a mistake on the part of a vendor and led to penalties that were largely overturned on appeal.
But beyond a few minor missteps, it's been an otherwise flawless integration of Kenseth and JGR. Jimmie Johnson may have a comfortable lead atop the point standings and be tied with Kenseth for most race victories in the series to date, but let's be honest -- seeing Five-Time up there is no surprise. He and crew chief Chad Knaus are proven commodities, with a decade-long working relationship and string of success behind them. Then there's Kenseth, with a new team, crew and manufacturer, already one victory from tying his career high in a single season and showing more explosiveness than he ever did in 13 years at Roush Fenway.
"Certainly I've felt comfortable over there," Kenseth said recently. "From the first time I walked in there, yeah, you are learning certain things and maybe a little nervous, but they've really made me feel comfortable and made me feel a part of the team, a part of the family, and a part of the program over there, for sure."
Now, this smooth a transition isn't exactly unheard of -- recent parallels include Clint Bowyer, who won three times and finished second in points last year, his first with Michael Waltrip Racing, and Mark Martin, who won five times and was series runner-up in his debut with Hendrick Motorsports in 2009. But while a few crashes and engine failures have kept him down in points, Kenseth has set the bar for performance from the very first race, a Daytona 500 he was dominating until his motor went boom. Johnson is the picture of consistency, no doubt, but Kenseth continues to show loads of upside even in races he doesn't win.
"He is as good as anybody in the garage. I don't know that he is surprising a lot of people that have been in that garage for the last several years, because I think we all kind of knew how good he was," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who's been racing against Kenseth since their days in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
"When I heard about his deal last year, I was excited for him because we have been pretty good friends for a really long time. I knew that this was going to be a great experience. He'd had some really good experiences with Jack (Roush) and the Roush deal. He worries a little bit too much. He was really worried about making that type of decision, you know, because he's having kids and he's just really hoping he's making the right choice. I just felt like this was going to be exciting and he was really going to have a lot of fun. It looks like it's working out."
It has, to the extent that Kenseth is -- with a respectful tip of the cap to Johnson -- the MVP of the first half of this Sprint Cup season. He has the perfect demeanor for this, really, an even-keeled mindset that kept him a contender last year even as the breakup with Roush neared. To unseat Johnson, he needs a 10-race title run free of the few catastrophic finishes that have relegated him to sixth in points. But he's on pace to be among the top Chase seeds, and clearly the potential is there for more.
"I'd sit around and daydream and wish and think about things like this happening this season, but I never really realistically thought that (at) the halfway point that we'd have four wins and be in the running and leading all of those laps and run as good as we have been," he said. "So I don't know where the limit is. I said I guess after Vegas and maybe Kansas, I felt like the sky was the limit with this team, and I really do. It's just a great group. Everything is going really good, and everybody is really focused on keeping it going good."
Some other awards at the off weekend that serves as the unofficial midpoint of this Sprint Cup campaign:
Comeback of the First Half: Kurt Busch. We expected Furniture Row Racing to be better with the addition of Busch, a wheelman with almost no equal. But nearly-sweep-Charlotte, brink-of-the-Chase better? That's a huge step for a single-car team that's now turning out quality vehicles with regularity, and promises to be a factor all the way to Richmond. In the meantime, the former Penske Racing exile has taken firm steps to put his career back on the right path.
Crew Chief of the First Half: Gil Martin. The ever-steady helmsman of Richard Childress Racing's No. 29 team has done an admirable job of keeping that team in the championship hunt despite Kevin Harvick's looming departure for Stewart-Haas Racing. At fourth in points and with a pair of victories, that group is already booked for the Chase. Now, can they step up their game in the final 10 races for an unprecedented swan song?
Owner of the First Half: Rick Hendrick. Mr. H just keeps on keeping on. All four of his drivers are ranked in the top 12 in points, and he has a real shot at seeing all of them make the Chase for a second straight year. Johnson leads the points and became the first driver in 30 years to sweep Daytona. Developmental driver Chase Elliott is on the rise. While things aren't perfect -- Kasey Kahne should be winning more, and Earnhardt Jr. needs to win, period -- Hendrick still sets the standard.
Biggest First Half Turnaround: Tony Stewart. The co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing seemed out to lunch, along with the rest of his organization, earlier this year. Things showed the first signs of turning around at Darlington, in a 15th-place finish on the most unforgiving night of the year. Two races later came a victory at Dover that gave Smoke a leg up on the Chase. Nothing's secure, but he's come a long way from the driver who was 24th in points after Bristol.
Biggest First Half Enigma: Brad Keselowski. The reigning Sprint Cup champion finished in the top five in each of the first four races of the year, and has been back there just twice since. His team was rocked by a penalty that left crew chief Paul Wolfe on suspension for three weeks, and has weathered its share of crashes and mechanical issues. Keselowski is back in the top 10, but still doesn't have a race win. He may keep us guessing all the way to Richmond.
Race of the First Half: Auto Club 400, Auto Club Speedway. The event that altered the course of this Sprint Cup season occurred in Fontana, Calif., where Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano carried out their personal grudge match to the final lap. The finale was memorable for painful reasons -- contact that sent Hamlin into an inside wall, fracturing one of his lumbar vertebra and essentially ending his Chase hopes. Teams rumbled on pit road, harsh words were exchanged, and the lingering effects of that afternoon remain evident even today.
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