Joe Gibbs on Matt Kenseth: ‘We didn’t want to do this’

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Team owner Joe Gibbs shed some light on the recent state of transition for his racing organization Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, saying Matt Kenseth’s candid response about his future accelerated the timeline for the team’s announcements.

Joe Gibbs Racing announced Tuesday that rookie Erik Jones would succeed Kenseth in JGR’s No. 20 Toyota. Gibbs appeared on NBCSN’s pre-race show Sunday afternoon, saying that Jones’ transition to JGR was the product of a long-term cultivation of his career through the Toyota development pipeline.

Though Gibbs indicated that Jones’ move was a longstanding plan, he said that Kenseth’s blurted-out answer the previous week at Kentucky Speedway that he would not return to JGR in 2018 altered the timing.

“I think with Matt, when I got to the race track that weekend, he said, ‘I got asked the question there, and I just went ahead and stated it,’ ” Gibbs said, chuckling about the circumstance. “That wasn’t the timing we had set up for it, but we understood that. We love everything about Matt, everything he’s done for us has been awesome. He was great off the track. I think he’s a great driver with a lot of talent, and like I said, we kind of hate the fact that we’ll be racing against him.

“I think on the overall picture though for us, we just got put in this situation with a lot of things happening to our race team over a period of about a year and half where we wound up at this spot. We didn’t want to be here, but we wound up here and then we had to make a decision.”

Among the other factors Gibbs mentioned was Carl Edwards’ abrupt retirement from the sport in the offseason. That decision triggered the progression of Daniel Suarez to JGR’s No. 19 Toyota for his Sunoco Rookie of the Year campaign this season.

Kenseth, 45, joined Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013 after 13 full seasons with Roush Fenway Racing. The Kenseth-JGR partnership has produced 14 wins and 11 poles. On Sunday, NBC reported that crew chief Jason Ratcliff would not lead the No. 20 team next season.

Kenseth has been linked to several teams for next year, most notably the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will vacate at season’s end. Wherever Kenseth lands, Gibbs said he still has goals to reach before the former series champion becomes part of his team’s opposition.

“To be quite truthful, none of our guys want to race against Matt and now we’re going to be in a situation where we are racing against him,” Gibbs said. “So our focus now goes to Matt — we think he can win a championship in our car. He was very close last year and a couple of last-lap circumstances kind of took him out of that. Our whole focus right now for him is to give him a chance to win a championship. That would be the best thing for us and the best thing for him.

“This wound up being a team decision, and obviously, me owning the team, it fell to me to make this decision. We didn’t want to do this, it wasn’t the right timing for us, it’s just a lot of things played into it where we had to make a decision.”