Kenseth making big impact with Joe Gibbs Racing
JOLIET, Ill. — Matt Kenseth needed a nap.
After NASCAR red-flagged Sunday’s Geico 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway, Kenseth touched based with crew chief Jason Ratcliff and returned to his motor home to wait out a rain delay that ultimately exceeded five hours.
Spending time with family — wife Katie and daughters Kaylin and Grace — helped pass the time.
“I hung out with Jason for a little bit, and then I went back to the motor home and hung out with Katie and the girls and Katie’s mom and dad,” Kenseth told Steve Richards of Performance Racing Network after the race. “I watched some football and needed a nap, so I lay down on the floor, and Grace and Kaylin jumped on top of me and were yelling in my ears as loud as they could.
“I still fell asleep for 15 minutes, and when I woke up, I felt like a million bucks. I had a couple pieces of pizza, and I was ready to go.”
If truth be told, Kenseth was hoping the race wouldn’t resume on Sunday night. His car had worked optimally under hotter conditions before the rain delay, and Kenseth wasn’t sure he could sustain the performance on a faster track that had cooled almost 20 degrees during the hiatus.
“It’s kind of ironic, because after the rain delay, I told Jason, I said, ‘Man, I hope it rains enough to where we’ve got to race (Monday) in the sun,’ because I really liked how the way my car felt when we got rubber on the track and the pace slowed down.
“When the pace was really fast, I didn’t think we had the best car, but when the pace slowed up, I thought we were pretty good at the end of a run. Obviously, I was wrong again…” Kenseth was leading when the rains came, and he was leading when the race ended under the lights. The victory was his sixth of the year, a single-season high-water mark for the 41-year-old driver, and tops in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
A man of wry, self-deprecating humor, simple tastes and a relentless work ethic, Kenseth moved to Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the 2012 season after 13 full seasons with Roush Fenway Racing. His impact was immediate and powerful.
Kenseth won three of the first 11 races this year, all at high-speed tracks — Las Vegas, Kansas and Darlington. The driver Kenseth replaced in the No. 20 Toyota, Joey Logano, now 23, was the youngest of the Gibbs drivers. Kenseth arrived as the senior member of a team that includes Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
Logano needed a change of scenery to nurture his own formidable talent, and he found a comfortable home at Penske Racing. Kenseth, meanwhile, has brought stability, a championship resume and an innate feel for the setups of his cars to a Gibbs organization that welcomed him as a leader.
The serendipitous pairing of Kenseth and Ratcliff, one of the top young talents in the garage, has created a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Busch has won four races this year, after visiting Victory Lane but once in 2012, when he narrowly missed the Chase. Hamlin was off to a strong start before a fractured vertebra suffered at Fontana, Calif., in late March sidelined him for four races and took the wind out of a promising season.
But, clearly, Kenseth is the driver at the top of the pyramid.
“This has been an unbelievable, crazy season, to be honest with you,” Kenseth said. “This is the best season I’ve ever had, and we’ve still got nine weeks left.
“I’m going to enjoy it (Sunday) night, then get to the shop (Monday), work on New Hampshire, take it one week at a time and see what we can do.
“Obviously, I’ve got the race team and the equipment to do it, but a lot of things have to go right to be in contention for a championship — and nine races (to go) is a lot of races.”