The worst kept secret in NASCAR is now official: Matt Kenseth is headed to Joe Gibbs Racing beginning in 2013. Back in late June, the 2012 Daytona 500 winner announced he would be leaving Roush Fenway Racing, the team he’d raced with since his rookie season back in 2000, at the end of the year. With 461 races under his belt, the 2003 champion boasts 22 victories, 122 top 5s and 224 top 10s behind the wheel of the No. 17 Ford. He has just one start–his Cup Series debut–behind the wheel of the No. 94 Bill Elliott-owned Ford at Dover where he started 16th and finished sixth.
Of course, the immediate question that comes to mind is why leave a team where you’re sitting third in the points, safely into the Chase for the third consecutive season and seven overall since its inception in 2004?
“I had never got to my last year of my contract. I really felt like winning the Daytona 500, I felt really good about everything we had going on over there,” Kenseth said during the announcement earlier Tuesday. “I really felt like that was going to be the time–we were going to get the thing re-signed and get a sponsor signed and we had a lot of momentum.”
“For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. I probably felt like my future was somewhat cloudy over there and (it was) weighing on my mind a little bit.”
For a driver who’s struggled to secure sponsorship, that’s really not surprising. Sure he’s a past champion with two Dayotna 500 victories to his name, but that won’t do him a whole lot of good if he doesn’t have the financial backing needed to continue. Simply put, without solid sponsorship, competing in NASCAR is nearly impossible in a sustainable model.
With Kenseth headed to the No. 20 Toyota and full-time sponsorship from Home Depot and Dollar General, that left Joey Logano as the big question mark, and as much as JGR wanted to keep “Sliced Bread” in their stable, their best efforts weren’t enough.
“What we were angling toward was to keep Joey and add Matt. After we added Matt, then we started working real hard on trying to work out things for Joey,” JGR Owner Joe Gibbs said. “There were several different ways we tried to get things done. Joey had other opportunities he felt like would be a better deal for him.”
Not long after Kenseth’s official announcement, Penske Racing came out to confirm rumors that had circled the No. 22 team for several weeks. Logano is set to join the organization next year to fill the seat left vacant when AJ Allmendinger was released following a failed drug test.
“Joey Logano is a very talented driver who has already achieved a lot of success at a young age,” Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said. “Joey is a great fit for our organization and we look forward to building on his success as he takes his place behind the wheel of the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford.”
Now the question that remains is whether those moves were the right ones. While I’m not convinced Kenseth will go out and win the Daytona 500 next year in his first race behind the wheel of the No. 20, the wealth of knowledge–12 years and a championship’s worth–Kenseth brings along is invaluable for JGR. And what’s even better is that with any positive change, there’s a sense of renewal and re-energizing that follows, and that alone could be enough to light a spark under Kenseth.
As for Logano, he has had plenty of time to prove he can race competitively week after week and has come up short with just two victories and 37 top-10 results in 136 starts. And while Joe Gibbs expects him to “blossom into one of the best” I’m not yet convinced. Sure, Logano has shown some flashes of brilliance, but he has yet to live up to the hype that followed him into the series in 2009.
However, his move to Penske Racing could be just what the 22-year-old needs. For a driver that has been overshadowed by teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, working alongside Brad Keselowski, who has found success with Penske, will likely help him to gain confidence he lost.
The bottom line is that no one really knows whether the changes are the right ones though both teams wouldn’t have moved forward if they felt it weren’t. One thing is for sure: 2013 is a season for proving both drivers knew what they were doing when they made the decision to leave their respective teams.