With Kenseth, Gibbs' trio could dominate

Ralph N. Paulk
| Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, 8:54 p.m.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Matt Kenseth has the distinction of being the only driver to return to Daytona International Speedway in hopes of repeating as Daytona 500 champion with a new team and manufacturer.

Kenseth spent 14 years piloting Ford-powered cars for Roush-Fenway Racing. No one, it seemed, was as entrenched with a team as the Wisconsin native.

Yet a seemingly restless Kenseth was in need of a change even with six wins the past two seasons and the 2003 points title on his résumé. Joe Gibbs Racing came courting, and Kenseth walked.

“Everything always changes, so it's cool to come in as the defending champion, but once we get rolling here it doesn't really mean anything,” Kenseth said. “It might mean a little bit, but very little.”

Kenseth's switch, though, could shake up the Sprint Cup power structure. The JGR trio — Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch — has the look of a dominant team, especially after Busch cruised to victory in Thursday's second 150-mile qualifying duel race.

“I think that when I started winning multiple times in the course of a year — it started when Kyle came over in 2008,” Hamlin said. “He pushed me. I remember going to a test and him pushing me to be faster. I was like, ‘He knows my game.'

“We've never had all three cars running good at the same time at Joe Gibbs Racing. We've always had one team that would struggle and another would be running up front and maybe two up front at the most. So, I think we're going to have all three cars in the Chase, and we're going to have a very good year as far as Joe Gibbs Racing is concerned.”

Hendrick Motorsports' drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — are considered favorites to out-distance the rest of the competition with the new Gen-6 stock car. All except Earnhardt will start in the front five rows.

However, Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have out-performed Hendrick Motorsports. Not only did Busch win a duel race, Kenseth captured the checkered flag in one of three segments during the Sprint Unlimited, and Hamlin consistently had one of the fastest cars during the practice sessions.

Busch will start Sunday's race with the No. 18 Toyota Camry on the outside of Row 2 alongside Kevin Harvick. Kenseth, a two-time winner here, starts the No. 20 Toyota in Row 6 opposite Kurt Busch.

Hamlin was in perfect position to challenge in the duels until he lost control of the No. 11 Toyota. He collided with Carl Edwards and was forced to park the car but made it into the 500 on time.

“It wasn't about the scenery at all, and I didn't really need to be reinvigorated, I guess,” Kenseth said. “ I always feel very energetic. I feel really great about my move. I feel like it's a great opportunity for me, for our team, for everybody.”

It's a move that could help Joe Gibbs secure his fourth Cup title.

“Matt's really good at the feel of the car and explaining the car and things like that,” Busch said. “Hopefully, he can really tell us what some of the significant differences are from the Roush stuff to the Joe Gibbs Racing stuff, which has been good so far.

“Matt is going to be a great addition, and so far he's been a great addition to the team. He brings that experience. He's got a great car sense and team sense — and so did Joey (Logano), but Matt's got a championship.”

Suddenly, Joe Gibbs feels good about his chances of winning another championship — one that has eluded him since Tony Stewart captured the Sprint Cup title in 2005.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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