Team Preview: Joe Gibbs Racing
By: Jeff Wackerlin - @JWackerlin Twitter and Instagram | MRN.com on February 12, 2013 | 10:12 A.M. EST
Matt Kenseth will join Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo: Getty Images)
MotorRacingNetwork.com counts down to the start of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and the running of the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway, with a series of team previews. Next up is a look at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Joe Gibbs Racing welcomes a former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion into the fold this year as the team looks to place all three cars in the post-season Chase for the first time since 2008.
Matt Kenseth, who won the 2003 championship, joined JGR in the off-season after spending the past 13 years driving full-time for Roush Fenway Racing. Kenseth replaced Joey Logano - now with Penske Racing - as the driver of the No. 20 Dollar General/Home Depot Toyota and will team up with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
"It's great having Matt on board," said owner Joe Gibbs. "He's somebody we all respect. For our Cup program, I have to tell you the truth. This is the most excited I've been going into a season."
Kenseth spent his entire career at Roush driving a Ford and will make the transition to a new manufacturer at a good time, with the series rolling out its sixth-generation racecar. He's been busy over the past two months testing and working not only with new teammates but new crew chief Jason Ratcliff.
“The timing is good, in a way," Kenseth said. "All the crew chiefs on every team have worked with the old car but if they ran well somewhere, they wish it wasn’t the new car so they could use all that stuff. It’s a good time because it’s going to be a learning experience with not only the new car, but obviously coming to a new team and having a new group of people as well.”
The last time JGR made the Chase with all of its drivers came when Tony Stewart drove for the team. Like Kenseth, Stewart is a previous champion winning three titles - including two with JGR in 2002 and 2005. Both Busch and Hamlin, still seeking that first championship, are looking forward to learning from Kenseth.
"Matt's been here a lot longer than me," Busch said. "There are things we can learn from him. There are things we could learn from Joey (Logano), but you look at Matt as a teacher. You look at Joey as a student. You'll always see it that way. Matt being that type of guy over here for Denny and myself, I hope it helps us."
"We know what he’s done in the past and I know what he’s capable of on the racetrack because I race with him every week," Hamlin said. "He’s going to be a guy that takes Joe Gibbs Racing to that elite level.”
Busch heads into 2013 fresh off signing a long-term contract extension to keep him behind the wheel of the No. 18 M&M's Toyota.
"I did meet with some other teams and they were very interested, and there were some very nice and lucrative deals that were out there to pursue," Busch said. "Ultimately, what it comes down to are relationships and things you’ve developed over the last five, six years here. The relationship I have with Coach Gibbs and J.D. (Gibbs, president) - as well as the Toyota folks, the M&M’s folks and everybody, they treat me so well."
The contract extension comes after a year in which Busch did not make the Chase for the second time in his five seasons with JGR. Back-to-back engine failures in the summer hindered his chances, as well as a tough outing in the final regular-season race at Richmond International Raceway after Busch had won there earlier in the year.
“We had a tough year and it wasn’t one that either of us wanted - myself or Joe Gibbs Racing," Busch said. "You look toward the positive and what these guys are working on here, what Toyota has been working on for us behind the scenes and what we feel like we can do moving forward to win races.”
Dave Rodgers will be back as Busch's crew chief. Together over the past three Cup seasons, they've combined for eight wins.
Along with the Mars brand, long-time JGR sponsor Interstate Batteries will return to support Busch in select races.
"If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be in the sport," Joe Gibbs said about his 21-year relationship with Interstate.
Busch will also run 25 Nationwide Series races under the Gibbs banner after running last season for his own Kyle Busch Motorsports team, where he went winless for the first time in nine years. Busch will be joining a stout JGR Nationwide lineup that includes Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers running for the championship.
"Joe made it very clear that he wanted me to be back in his Nationwide cars," Busch said. "That was a positive thing for me to do, and a positive thing for me to work with Adam Stevens (crew chief)."
Last year, Hamlin tied for the series lead in wins (five), matching reigning champion Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson. He finished sixth in the 2012 standings in his first season with crew chief Darian Grubb and made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the seventh consecutive year.
“Our goals haven’t changed," said Hamlin, who will be backed once again by FedEx. "We need to win at least six or seven races. That’s where we feel like we’ll be this year. And we need to fill up the stats column with top fives and top 10’s that you need to win a championship. The champion is not going to go out there and win one or two races for the year. He's going to be the guy that wins consistently. We’ve done that over the last few years, but we haven’t had reliability to win a championship. So that’s been the focus of this race team through the off-season.”