Auto racing: It's full speed ahead for Matt Kenseth

2013-02-22T06:45:00Z Auto racing: It's full speed ahead for Matt KensethTAMIRA MADSEN | For sports
February 22, 2013 6:45 am  • 

Matt Kenseth needed to make amends with his past before stepping into the future.

When the Chase for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup concluded, the Cambridge native's 15-year tenure with Roush Fenway Racing also came to a close.

Kenseth won 24 races, made the Chase in eight of nine seasons and clinched the 2003 Cup series championship in 13 Cup seasons for team owner Jack Roush.

The pair had a 90-minute talk in December to help Roush better understand Kenseth's choice to make the move to Joe Gibbs Racing. He made the JGR announcement in June and finished his Roush Fenway career with a seventh-place slot in the Chase standings.

"Jack's done a lot for my career and I probably wouldn't be here without him, for sure," said Kenseth, who joined Roush Fenway in 1998. "I certainly wanted to give him the respect to talk to him a little bit and explain what I was thinking and why I was thinking it, and go on from there.

"I think we both still have a lot of respect for each other, and hopefully, continue to be friends."

Kenseth then jumped full force into a JGR future that includes a car manufacturer switch from Ford to Toyota, style debut of NASCAR's Gen-6 cars and building a relationship with Jason Ratcliff, a crew chief in his second full-time season working at the Cup level.

"Everybody has a time throughout their life, career, job or whatever where something different comes up and they have to do what's best for them and their family," Kenseth said.

"Moving forward in my career, I felt this was the right time and the right move for me and best place for me to go where I thought I could have the most success."

The depth of knowledge Kenseth brings to a JGR driver lineup that includes Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin has created a palpable buzz in the industry. The 40-year-old has always had a knack for relaying valuable information about car set-up and performance, and many people are eager to tap into that expertise.

Since teams collaborate closely with manufacturers, Joe Gibbs sought Lee White's advice about hiring Kenseth. White, president of Toyota Racing Development, offered enthusiastic approval when Gibbs discussed interest in the veteran.

"Engineers and team engineers have a lot of friendships and contacts in the garage," White said. "The feedback on Matt Kenseth was: 'This is, without a doubt, one of the brightest and absolute best guys in the garage to tell you what your car is doing and help you make it better.'

"From a technical feedback and effort to make the whole organization better with regard to level of communication, there is not a better guy to have in the fold than Matt Kenseth."

Busch has forged a relationship with Kenseth over the years, since brother Kurt Busch worked at Roush Fenway for a period of time. Kyle also has participated in late model races with Kenseth and son Ross Kenseth in Wisconsin.

Kyle Busch enjoyed working with former teammate Joey Logano, but said the experience Kenseth brings to JGR will have educational benefits.

"He's got a great car sense and team sense, and so did Joey, but Matt's got a championship," Busch said. "There are things we can learn from Matt. There were things we could learn from Joey, but you look at Matt as a teacher. … Matt being that type of guy over here for Denny and myself, I hope that helps us."

Kenseth said his expectations are high despite the team transition to the No. 20 Toyota Camry with primary sponsorship shared by Dollar General and Husky Tools. He's also excited to dive into a ramped-up race schedule that will mark his return to the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

JGR officials have secured sponsorship for Kenseth to compete in 15 Nationwide Series events. He posted a victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his most recent Nationwide race in May 2011.

State fans will get the chance to see Kenseth race this summer as he is expected to run in the ARCA Midwest Tour Howie Lettow Memorial 150 on July 9 at The Milwaukee Mile, in addition to defending his Slinger Nationals title at Slinger Super Speedway.

Kenseth is the defending Daytona 500 race winner and looks for a third victory at the legendary track on Sunday. Kenseth finished fifth in the second Daytona qualifying duel on Thursday and will start 12th in Sunday's race.

He won't establish benchmarks to define what will classify as a successful season but said he's enthused as he's ever been to go racing.

"My goals are the same as they probably would be any other year — maybe even higher," Kenseth said. "I certainly don't believe there will be a building or transition period with our team.

"My expectations probably are higher than they were going into last season. I'm expecting big things. I think there is a lot of pressure, but you have to be careful and channel that all the right way."

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