Matt Kenseth was overcome with emotion after taking the checkered flag on Sunday.
“I don’t know what to say guys, thank you so much,” Kenseth cried emphatically over the radio as he scored his 28th career NASCAR Sprint Cup victory. “You guys make me look really good every week.”
During the Victory Lane celebration, Kenseth still couldn’t believe his good fortune. Although he’s won more than four races in one season, Kenseth has never won as many this early. And the victories appear far from over.
“This is such a great team and great opportunity for me,” Kenseth said. “It’s just been an unbelievable season and year of my life, honestly.”
Despite Joe Gibbs Racing’s stellar record and status as one of NASCAR’s premier organizations, Kenseth wasn’t sure what to expect after the announcement was made at Kentucky one year ago that he would not return to Roush Fenway Racing.
“It’s been going pretty good so far,” Kenseth said in his typical understated manner once the victory high had faded.
Kenseth is too much of a team player to admit his presence at JGR has turned the No. 20 team into a championship contender again. Under the direction of Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth has four Cup wins this season.
Yes, the team has experienced pitfalls along the way, including multiple engine failures and a penalty for a connecting rod from his winning engine at Kansas that was too light. But the team fought that, having the initial penalty reduced on appeal. Consequently, Kenseth regained 38 of the original 50 points he had been docked and now, weeks later, sits fifth in the standings.
If the Chase for the Sprint Cup began tomorrow, Kenseth’s four wins would place him on top in the rankings. The 41-year-old’s contribution to the organization has not gone unnoticed by team owner Joe Gibbs. The former championship coach of the Washington Redskins realizes the value of senior leadership, particularly with Kenseth having two younger yet extremely talented teammates in Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
“He’s really, really meant a lot to our race team mainly because of the chemistry between Denny, Kyle and Matt is just great,” Gibbs said. “I think they all really respect each other. When they sit and talk, it’s normally sometimes three different varying ideas on things, which is really good.
“With drivers, who are they going to respect? I don’t drive a racecar, but they do. So if you want somebody they’ll pay attention to it’s going to be another driver that they really feel like is good at what he does and they respect.”
Gibbs acknowledges the communication goes both ways. When the teams unloaded on Thursday, Kenseth was the least optimistic regarding his car’s potential. The teams pooled the data, developed a game plan and with Ratcliff opting not to take tires on the last pit stop, Kenseth had the point and the necessary track position to win the race.
“Plus, every single week I’m amazed,” Gibbs said. “He’s got great talent. Last week (at Sonoma) he was going to be top five if we don’t run him out of gas or make him start saving fuel – and he doesn’t like road courses. Every place he says he doesn’t like, the next thing, I look up and he’s leading the race. We just think the world of him and we’re glad to have him on board.”
Note: Gibbs said on Sunday “there’s always the possibility” of a fourth Sprint Cup team at Joe Gibbs Racing but the decision would be predicated on proper funding and the right driver.
“It’s really hard to do,” Gibbs told FOXSports.com. “We would have to have the right sponsor, the right matchup, the right driver and that’s awful hard to put together. The odds are always against it, I would say.”
However, Gibbs added that he’s “been surprised” in the past when certain drivers have become available that he never expected were on the market.
Jamie McMurray doesn’t see his season as inconsistent.
The driver of the No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevy just believes that luck hasn’t been on his side.
After EGR went through a dramatic overhaul prior to the 2012 season, McMurray’s team was the only one that remained intact. However, it’s been three years since the 37-year-old Joplin, Mo., native enjoyed that miraculous reunion with team owner Chip Ganassi that led to 2010 wins in the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the fall race at Charlotte. But his last victory was 94 races ago.
Now, in his fourth season with crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion, McMurray and his team have fought back from a 29th-place finish in the season-opener at Daytona to as high as 11th in the standings after the race at Kansas in April. After McMurray’s second-place finish on Sunday, his first top five in 65 races, the driver is currently ranked 19th.
“I don’t feel like our year has been up and down,” McMurray said. “I feel like we’ve run well at every single racetrack. We just haven’t finished well – and running well is the harder part.
“But I feel really good about that. The switch to Hendrick engines (at the start of the season) was really good. I think (the team) has done a really good job on our cars. At every type track we’ve been fast this year. So I feel really good about that.”
And McMurray doesn’t seem fazed about his job status for next season despite being in a contract renewal year. Despite the rollercoaster performances, he doesn’t feel under pressure to perform.
“I don’t think any of us worry about things like that,” McMurray said. “I’m not one to talk about that so, no I’m not worried about that though.”
Greg Biffle, who had a rough ride at Kentucky Speedway after he was collected in the seven-car wreck on Lap 48, graciously acknowledged his former teammate Matt Kenseth late Sunday night:
Congrats to @mattkenseth on the win, sometimes you have to make big decisions in life and I’m glad for Matt
4: Intermediate track wins by Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. JGR has won all races on 1.5-mile tracks this year.
7: Consecutive top 10 finishes for Kevin Harvick. He finished 10th at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday.
960: Laps led by Matt Kenseth this season – a series best. Teammate Kyle Busch is second with 955 laps led.
After coaching players twice his size, Joe Gibbs knows when to pick his battles. Such was the case on Sunday in his first attempt to gain access to the infield care center at Kentucky after his driver, Denny Hamlin, was looked over following his wreck.
“Yeah, when I tried to get into the care center, and the guy stiff-armed me, I thought I was going to have a problem there,” Gibbs said. “But thank goodness there was no fight because he would have been the favorite.”