BYRNES: Don’t Count Out Kenseth

One of the biggest stories heading into the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is Matt Kenseth’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing after spending his entire career with Roush Fenway Racing.

While no one argues against the innumerable ways in which Kenseth can benefit his new teammates, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, most observers aren’t adequately considering the magnitude of his potential in his first year with the organization.

The Wisconsin native truly could be a serious contender for this year’s Cup Series championship – a prediction rarely granted a driver in his first days with a team. But if anyone is capable of the feat early in a driver/team relationship, it is Kenseth.

Kenseth, the elder of the three JGR drivers, is in the prime of his career, and his talent level parallels that of anyone. We may not talk about him as much as we do some of his peers, and he doesn’t garner much pre-race buzz because he perpetually flies under the radar and doesn’t qualify up front. The former champion isn’t a flashy or attention-grabbing driver who leads the most laps or makes the boldest moves, but he surfaces when it’s time to close the deal. To his competition, Kenseth can be deadly silent.

As a NASCAR broadcaster, I have covered Kenseth his entire career and cannot count the number of occasions on which I have seen him take an ill-handling car and maneuver it around the track until he locates the fastest line. Additionally, he is adept at relaying to the crew what he needs to enhance the car’s performance.

For these reasons, there is no doubt his contributions to Joe Gibbs Racing should improve the organization as a whole. Busch and Hamlin have endured significant disappointment and close calls the past couple of years, and many people insist that “if Busch ever figures out the mental part of the sport, he will be unstoppable.” Both those younger drivers, though, can be highly emotional behind the wheel. Kenseth, however, brings crucial stability and experience to JGR, and I expect him to exemplify a quiet approach or a “lead by example” style. He handles both adversity and success with class, and could provide an invaluable model for Busch and Hamlin in that respect.

Furthermore, Kenseth brings an incredible understanding of what a race car needs. His teammates do, as well, as their stats speak for themselves, but the veteran can be a good sounding board and a filter through which to run ideas. That was quite evident during the Daytona test when Kenseth’s new teammates and their respective crew chiefs huddled together. Leading the conversation appeared to be Kenseth.

Crew chief Jason Ratcliff and he seem to have hit it off, and although we won’t know definitively until the season is well underway, they initially appear a great match. We typically assert that if a driver and his new crew chief get off to a solid start, they’ll be successful, but Kenseth and Ratcliff seem to be ahead of the game.

Indeed, the driver wouldn’t have left owner Jack Roush if he didn’t see the distinct possibility of success. I never dreamed he would part ways with Roush, and I was shocked by the announcement he was doing just that. Given his long tenure at Roush Fenway Racing, it is evident Kenseth doesn’t buy into the theory that “the grass is greener on the other side.” However, I think he didn’t want to play the “what if” game with himself years down the road or have any regrets at the end of his career. Armed with great resources and equipment, extremely talented teammates and a crew chief who appears to be a great fit for him, the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion stands a legitimate chance of also being crowned the 2013 champion.