Cue the Imperial March for Darth Kenseth
When Matt Kenseth signed with Joe Gibbs Racing, Jack Roush was famously quoted as saying that Kenseth would, “be moving to the dark side.” Apparently, the dark side of the force has a lot of horsepower behind it as Kenseth has won seven races in his first season for JGR. And unlike the last dark side practitioner, it's going to take more than Mark Hamill and a planet full of Ewoks to stop this master from winning a Sprint Cup championship this year.
Matt Kenseth's new Bristol intro song?
New Hampshire was supposed to present a major roadblock for the former champion. It was a track Hendrick Motorsports did exceedingly well at in the past and one that Kenseth had struggled at. Along with many other observers, I discounted the value of momentum and believed that his recent history in Loudon would be too much for Kenseth to overcome. What those observers failed to remember is that those past results all came driving a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. His performance so far in 2013 makes it fair to ask just how much Kenseth carried RFR instead of the other way around.
Coming into the season many speculated that Kenseth would struggle in his first season with JGR. After all, he was coming into a completely new situation. He was a 40 year old driver moving to a new team, a new manufacturer, sharing a locker room with two very talented but troubled drivers. Neither Hamlin nor Kyle Busch were known for their ability to elevate their peers. In fact, they'd singularly failed to do so with Joey Logano (who has also experienced a career revival by changing teams this year). And Logano was at least someone relatively of their racing generation. Kenseth, on the other hand, was the reason the Chase for the Cup was created; a driver who succeeded with blinding consistency over flashy moments.
Sure, Kenseth has had some success over the years. In addition to the aforementioned 2003 championship, Kenseth had (at the time) 24 wins and four other top five series point finishes. Despite the revolving door of teammates (when he began at Roush, he drove alongside Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton), Kenseth provided a steady hand that needed little maintenance year to year. He could be counted on to be competitive and finish races. In later years he became overshadowed by his newer stable mates in Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. Biffle won championships at the Truck and Nationwide levels while Edwards twice finished second in the points- including a 2011 finish where he tied for the title (but lost out on a tiebreaker) with Tony Stewart.
Still, Kenseth's 2013 results are beyond anyone's wildest expectations. With seven wins, Kenseth is in the middle of a season that is far and away his very best. That includes a 2002 season where he won five races and his 2003 title run. Those seasons were good but this season is proving to be one for the ages. In addition to the seven victories, he's also led 1300 laps (both are career highs he's likely to improve on with eight races to go). Were it not for a pair of TRD engine failures, it's entirely possible he'd be looking at higher numbers still. No matter what kind of track this season, Kenseth has found his way to victory lane. All this in a season that was supposed to be a transitional one for the long-time Ford driver.
He's also proved to be the kind of driver that lifts a team and a manufacturer. Since losing Tony Stewart four years ago, the team has lacked that kind of centerpiece to build around. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are both talented wheelmen. But both also prone to feuds with other drivers (or each other) and periods of the kind of block-headed performance that ruins seasons. Neither could be the rock of consistency that a teammate could rely on during tough times. Kenseth is that guy.
Consider the performance of Kyle Busch so far this season. He has four wins of his own, tied for the most he's achieved in a season since 2008. He has 13 top five finishes and has eight races to improve that total. Moreover, he's finished second in both of the Chase races thus far. The latter may well be Busch's most impressive feat this season. In years past, Busch has melted with the Chase pressure. Now he posts top twos and his post-race interview shows he's hungry for better results still. For the first time in his career, Busch is staying within himself and taking what the race track gives him. The fact that he's doing this as Kenseth comes aboard cannot be an accident.
The results for Toyota as a whole are also better than they've ever been. In addition to Kenseth and Busch's results, Michael Waltrip Racing has a pair of victories and three cars capable of running up front any given weekend. Thanks in large part to his back injury, Denny Hamlin is marking time until the end of the year. Yet with an offseason to become healthy (both mentally and physically), he too will have an opportunity to run up front next season. Those results are the work of many different people- from the engineers at the teams to the TRD developers at the engine shop to the crew personell who set up the cars on the track.
Yet Matt Kenseth is a part of that effort as well. He's brought an outside perspective to on-track setups that's been missing at the insular Toyota environments. He also brings the ability to wring every last bit of sustainable speed from a chassis. Some drivers can sustain their speed while others excel and finding speed- the ability to do both is quite rare. Roush knew well just what Kenseth brough to both his team and the Ford camp even if those outside the shop might have missed.
It's a fair question to wonder just how well Kenseth might have done had he left the Roush ship years ago. Other drivers took his place years ago as the top priority at Ford and RFR. His car was a rotating billboard for sponsors- when indeed he had a sponsor at all. There's something chilling to a driver's confidence when he's running an unsponsored car, particularly when he shares shop space with fully sponsored rides. Even if the equipment was comparable, the attitude behind it is never the same. The confidence behind it is never the same. It's only marginally better when you've got a new company on the running board every week. Kenseth dealt with these issues for years with nary a word against the man who gave him a chance in stock car racing, Jack Roush.
Matt Kenseth's book while at RFR
Still, now being an irresistible force at Joe Gibbs Racing must be immensely satisfying for Kenseth. He's finally performing at the level he was a decade ago as he came into his own as a NASCAR driver. His dominance brings to life an Imperial March behind the Roush's “dark side” comment from last year and places Kenseth as the man to beat for this year's Sprint Cup trophy. He may well be the man to beat for the next three years as being comfortable at JGR will only make him better. Most of all, he's showing the kind of emotion many fans thought him incapable of. He answered reporters' questions with tears streaming down his face Sunday afternoon as the emotion of the moment overcame him. I never thought I'd be glad to see Darth Vader cry.