Fresh off a win in last Sunday’s race at Las Vegas, there is not a doubt in Matt Kenseth’s mind he made the right move to switch to Joe Gibbs Racing and drive the No. 20 Toyota this season.
“When I came over here, I met Joe and J.D. and I knew it was the right place, the right team for me,” said Kenseth, a two-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I knew 100 percent for sure, and I don’t know how else to explain it. It was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”
Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champion, had different offers on the table, including one to stay with Roush Fenway Racing where he spent the first 13 years of his career. But, there was a conviction it was time to move to the Gibbs team.
“Throughout my life, whenever it’s a decision that big, I don’t want to say I’ve ever been wrong, but I’ve never regretted it,” he said. “If I have that much conviction, I knew I needed to be doing it. None of the rest of it really mattered. I knew I had to make it happen.”
To his credit, Kenseth remained a factor throughout last season. While he was strong early in the season, winning his second Daytona 500 and finishing runner-up to Brad Keselowski at last year’s Food City 500, he actually had more success the second half of the year.
After the announcement he was leaving Roush, Kenseth and his team managed to still win races at Talladega and Kansas. He finished seventh in the year end point standings, saying the relationships with those on the crew never changed.
“There were some awkward moments with management, but with the team guys, there was no difference,” he said. “They tried as hard as ever to win another championship. It really wasn’t a struggle like everyone thought there would be.”
At Gibbs, the 41-year-old driver has found a pair of younger teammates in Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch who are among the most talented drivers in the sport. Still, they had an instant chemistry with Kenseth, giving him a hard time during the team’s annual Media Tour stop back in January.
Kenseth prefers the laid-back atmosphere at Gibbs to the stricter code of conduct with the Roush organization.
“It’s a colorful group,” he said. “I realize in January and February everybody is chippy, but everybody is so happy around here. It’s not that they don’t work hard. There are just a lot of happy people here, and I’m one of them. Just the atmosphere here, I really like their cars, their approach, the whole feeling in the shop and the whole attitude about the place.”
Still, Kenseth had a ton of success with Roush and was one of the most consistent drivers in the sport. He’s one of only a handful of drivers to make the Chase in eight of its nine years, and has 25 career Sprint Cup victories.
There was no year like 2003 when he won just one race, but still dominated the point standings.
“We had such a huge lead. We gave up a little bit of it with parts breaking and stuff,” he said. “Realistically as good a year as we were having, we were off on speed a little bit, but we had a lot of third to seventh-place finishes. We knew that, but the way that system was with 150 points per race, two bad races and you’re done. There was a lot of pressure, more than it appeared from the outside.”
Pressure or not, Kenseth has tried to stay the same.
While many on the outside see him as quiet, unassuming and even boring, Kenseth actually is quick-witted with a dry sense of humor. At this point in his life, however, he doesn’t all of a sudden plan on becoming the life of the party.
“I haven’t really changed for anybody whether they’ve wanted me to or not,” he said. “I think the people who really know me think I’m not quite as boring as I’ve been given credit for. But, it’s fun around here. We joke around a little bit and have a good time.”