Driver is off to a good start with Joe Gibbs Racing
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When Matt Kenseth pulled into the garage area for the lunch break following the opening session of Preseason Thunder, his new No. 20 car was solidly atop the scoring tower at Daytona International Speedway. And the defending Daytona 500 champion had one tongue-in-cheek question for crew chief Jason Ratcliff.
“You don’t have a big plate on this trying to make me feel better, do you?”
Nope. The opening on the restrictor plate in Kenseth’s car was 29/32nds of an inch wide, just like everyone else’s. The difference may have had something to do with the driver behind the wheel -- not surprising, given that Kenseth compiled a sterling record on restrictor-plate tracks last season with Roush Fenway Racing, and appears poised to carry much of that prowess over to his new home, Joe Gibbs Racing.
Kenseth won half of the four plate-track events last season, and finished third in the other two. Never one to heap praise upon himself, the 2003 Sprint Cup Series champion often credited his Roush team, which has made sizeable gains in plate races in recent years, or the horsepower generated by his Roush-Yates engine. Now Kenseth drives a JGR Toyota, powered by an engine from Toyota Racing Development, and he’s picking up right where he left off.
Sprint Cup Series testing; all times Eastern
Thursday, Jan. 10
Generation-6 cars pass first test
Friday, Jan. 11
'Big One' hits Daytona during testing
Saturday, Jan. 12
1 p.m.-5 p.m. - SPEED
Kenseth ranked first and second, respectively, in Thursday’s two sessions, was third in Friday morning’s run, and was fortunately off the track when a number of cars wrecked in drafting practice later that afternoon. While JGR is no stranger to having fast cars at plate tracks -- Tony Stewart was a terror on the high banks during his days at Gibbs, and Kyle Busch is often a threat here -- they haven’t enjoyed the recent success of Kenseth, who won a pair of Daytona 500 trophies while at Roush, and upgrades the team’s restrictor-plate efforts simply by his presence.
“When you get out there in a multi-car pack, it comes down to drivers,” Ratcliff said. “… You can kind of tell those handful of drivers that just have a knack for speedway racing. And obviously, he’s one of them.”
Of course, drivers often downplay the role of talent on a restrictor-plate track -- Kenseth’s former Roush teammate Greg Biffle said Friday that plate-race outcomes very often comes down to pure luck, and even Kenseth himself claimed testing at a place like Daytona involves little more than mashing the accelerator and gripping the wheel. “There’s not a lot for you to do,” he said. “Just run a smooth line around here and hold it wide open. So it’s an easy test to come to, at first.”
Key words: at first. “I think you and I could go out there and drive them, but that doesn’t mean we could win in them,” Ratcliff said. “So driving them is one thing, winning in them is another.”
It all changes when the draft becomes involved. That much was evident Friday afternoon when Dale Earnhardt Jr. tapped Marcos Ambrose in a pack drafting session, igniting a big crash that sent a number of cars spinning down the backstretch. With so many vehicles traveling so fast and in such close proximity, the differences that separate one driver from another become almost imperceptible.
“It’s tiny. It’s tiny,” Ratcliff said. “It’s gut instinct on what the guys around you are doing. You rely on the cars around you so much here, as far as how your car is going to perform and react. You can kind of make guys do what you want to do if you’re ahead of the game. If you’re a little bit ahead of everybody, and you’re making the moves a little bit before they are, you’re kind of forcing their hand. And the good guys do that. They know what to expect before it happens. So I think there’s a nuanced understanding and awareness of what’s going on. Some guys have it, some guys don’t.”
Given his history, clearly Kenseth does, even if his name doesn’t always come up in relation to the great restrictor-plate racers of his era -- something probably due to his humble, low-key style as much as anything else. Asked if his restrictor-plate skills might rub off on his new organization, he begged off the question, understandable given that he hasn’t yet even started a race for JGR.
“We’ll talk about that at the end of the year,” he said. “We haven’t raced, and we didn’t really do a lot. But my car seems to be really fast, and that’s always fun. Hopefully it’s that fast when we come back.”
Given the speed Kenseth has posted in testing this week, you’d think so. But although Ratcliff is happy with how fast the No. 20 was off the truck, as well as how the team has been able to improve it over the course of Preseason Thunder, he didn’t view the raw numbers as any kind of barometer for Speedweeks. “The stopwatch, how you compare to the group -- it’s way too early to hang your hat on any of that,” the crew chief said.
The new guy in the seat, though, is another matter altogether.
“It’s typically the same guys at the end of these races, and Matt’s usually there,” Ratcliff said. “It’s exciting for us, because when you look at speedway racing between Matt and Kyle and Denny (Hamlin), they do really well at these places. So I think our shot when we come back is hopefully going to be a good one.”