Year of discovery with new team, son has put Kenseth in prime position entering Chase
RICHMOND, Va. -- Matt Kenseth typically isn't very comfortable in new environments.
In a sport where change is constant, the 2003 champion of NASCAR's top series has been a testament to steadiness. Before this season Kenseth had made only one major career move over the course of his 16 years at the national level, that when he jumped from Robbie Reiser's small Nationwide Series operation to Jack Roush's powerhouse. And even then, Reiser went along as crew chief.
So it was no small matter when Kenseth left Roush Fenway Racing after last season for a ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. The anxiety was natural, especially on the Monday after last year's finale at Homestead when he first entered a JGR lobby decorated with championship mementos from both NASCAR and the NFL. His new crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, worked in another building, but Kenseth didn't yet have a key card for the facility. So he walked up to the receptionist, asked to see Ratcliff, and was welcomed to his new home with a question.
"And you are?"
These days, the often self-effacing Kenseth laughs about it. "She probably doesn't like me telling that story over and over," he said. "And I'm not real recognizable anyway. That was the start of it."
That was the start of perhaps Kenseth's best chance at a championship since he won his first title a decade ago, the start of a season that's seen him match or exceed personal bests in a number of statistical categories, the start of an assimilation into a new organization that's appeared so seamless, it feels like Kenseth has been with JGR for far longer than one regular season. Drivers thrive on comfort, and Kenseth has found it in a new place in a short period of time, and it's translated into a level of performance that has the mild-mannered Wisconsin native as the top seed entering the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"I've worked with a lot of different crew chiefs and crew guys and stuff, but never really switched organizations," Kenseth said. "I actually think of myself as a person that's not very comfortable in new surroundings, talking in front of new people. That's kind of the way I view myself more so than other ways. I just think it's the right people, place and organization for me."
Things clicked almost immediately, plain to see on a team that was the class of the field in the Daytona 500 until suffering a blown engine, and then rebounded to win the third race of the season. Kenseth matched well with Ratcliff, who showed him around the JGR shop that first day after everyone figured out who the new driver was, introducing him to new procedures and personnel. Winter tests of the Generation-6 car helped Kenseth bond with his crew, even if a missed shift required an engine change his first time on the track in his No. 20.
There was no one moment when it all fell into place -- there was just a feeling that this was the right move to make, one that's only grown stronger as the season has progressed. Teammate Kyle Busch said Kenseth was able to quickly get the feeling he was looking for in JGR's cars, which save for one lull in the early summer have been among the most consistent on the circuit.
"It all starts with that," Kenseth said. "You can be as confident as you want, but if you're running 22nd and you can't get your car to work and nothing's going right, that confidence wanes after a while, no matter who you are. You're like, 'Oh, man, maybe I can't do what I thought I could.' Obviously, the better you run, that instills more confidence in the whole group, myself included. But that starts with fast cars."
No question, Kenseth has one. And so does one more member of the Kenseth family, requiring the NASCAR champion to find his comfort level in another environment that's familiar yet different all at the same time.
Just be Dad
Kenseth remembers what it was like to be a kid, a young driver just beginning his climb up the career ladder. He remembers what it was like when his father Roy, himself a racer on the short tracks of Wisconsin, tried to offer unsolicited advice. And he keeps all that in mind these days, as his 20-year-old son Ross progresses deeper into a promising career that included a sixth-place finish in his ARCA debut a month ago.
It all requires a balance. Kenseth may have won over two dozen events at NASCAR's top level, and he may have started on many of the same tracks his son has, and he may have been a hands-on driver who built his own cars and arranged his own setups back in the day. But now, he's discovered there are times when he should just be Dad.
"I pretty much learned somewhat the hard way that you should just be Dad. And if he wants any help he can come and find and ask you," Kenseth said. "It's hard to not give advice, because you see things. But I can remember being a kid, too, and my dad trying to help me with my racing, and being like, 'OK, Dad, whatever.' Not that Ross gets like that, but I remember that. I used to race with my dad all the time, so he would always be in my ear, and I'd be like, 'I'm fine. I know what I'm doing.'
"So some of it is, you've got to let them learn for themselves. I see things and I just want to get on the radio so bad and say do this, do that. But some things you just have to learn yourself. And Ross is really fast learner. … I would talk to him for hours about racing and help with anything he wants to be helped with, but I have found at times you're better off to just step back and let him do it. If he wants some help, he'll call and ask for it. And if he doesn't, sometime I don't give him any. So that seems to work better. I seem to be less of an irritant to him that way."
Also an engineering student at Clemson University, the younger Kenseth has shown some flashes of his old man. He won the All-American 400, a prominent late model event, last year at the Nashville fairgrounds. Driving a car owned by Ken Schrader, Ross won the pole for his ARCA debut at Madison, Wis., and finished sixth as Matt looked on. His father believes Ross is ready for the next step should an opportunity arise.
For Matt, watching Ross progress brings a mixture of pride and anxiety. Kenseth admits he's gotten nervous a few times watching his son compete, like when Ross is leading in the final laps and another car is catching up, or dueling with a driver he might have had an issue with earlier in the race. And then there's the shop, and the high standards of a champion driver who can admittedly be a little uptight about the way things are done. Kenseth is, after all, someone who ran his No. 17 team at Roush as if he were the car owner himself.
In the case of Ross, he often is.
"Nobody does things exactly how you want them done, and I'm pretty anal when it comes to a lot of different things," Matt said. "… When I raced short track stuff before I moved up, I basically did my own stuff. Had a little volunteer help, but I would build my own cars and I'd do them how I want. I'd build my own shocks and set my own cars up and do all that stuff. So I'm used to having my hands on everything."
Which is why he sometimes has to make himself take a step back, and let Ross develop on his own. As with so much this year regarding Kenseth, it's all about finding that comfort zone.
"It is fun. It is a nice diversion to go up there and watch him," he said. "But it's still racing."
Pieces in place
When Kyle Busch joined Joe Gibbs Racing before the 2008 season, he and new teammate Denny Hamlin spent the following campaign trying to top one another on the race track. New blood brought with it a new level of competitive intensity, and it's happened again this year since Kenseth has joined the fold.
"I think he's everything I hoped for in a teammate," said Hamlin, whose season was marred by a broken vertebra that forced him to miss most of five races, and scuttled his Chase hopes. "Anything I ever ask him, he's so open-book about, and he studies hard on data and really works with his crew chief well. So far, it's been all I could ask for."
It's certainly seemed to spark Busch, who used a strong surge late in the regular season to emerge as a serious championship contender in his own right. Busch joined JGR and immediately flourished, enjoying what still stands as the best season of his career. The driver of the No. 18 car looks at his first-year teammate, and sees a little of the same thing.
"I think Matt's been a great asset," Busch said. "I think he's done a tremendous job of being able to get acclimated to the program quite easily and quickly. … Matt has certainly been on his game so far this year. He likes the way the cars feel, and he's been able to get the feeling that he's looking for more often than we have so far. But that's sort of what I did in 2008 -- I came into a fresh program and won eight races, and this looks quite similar to that."
Although Hamlin's season can be judged only as an incomplete due to the back injury, it seems clear that Kenseth has had as large an impact on JGR as the team has had on him. For an organization once loaded with younger drivers, the 41-year-old brought immediate leadership. JGR has historically had its issues in the Chase, where quality-control problems have hampered championship efforts on behalf of Busch in 2008 and Hamlin last year.
The next 10 races will tell if Kenseth's hands-on nature will have an effect on that. But everything else seems in place.
"I feel like we're where we need to be," Kenseth said. "Hopefully, our stuff will run good and we'll have mechanical reliability and not get in accidents, that kind of thing. If we have all that, I feel like we're competitive enough to race with them just on speed. Pit road, we're as good as anybody. If we have all that, if I don't make mistakes, if we don't break parts and crash … I feel confident that we can go race with anybody."
Although he won the title a decade ago, Kenseth was also a factor in the 2006 race that resulted in Jimmie Johnson's first championship. That year Kenseth led the Chase with two races remaining, eventually finishing 56 points back in the runner-up position. With the top Chase seed in hand, he's in position to make his most serious title run since.
"This is the most wins I've ever had in a season, especially to this point," he said. "Probably the most laps we've ever led in a season, and best qualifying position. The speed has been there. So if it's just on speed and there are no other issues, I feel like for sure it is our best shot."