Odd couple finds success with Gibbs
A member of Kyle Busch's crew works underneath his number 18 Toyota Camry after NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Saturday, September 21, 2013.
(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
Matt Kenseth, left, talks with Kyle Busch during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
Kyle Busch prepares for practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series Coca-Cola 600 auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Saturday, May 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Matt Kenseth waits to take qualifying laps for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race Saturday, June 22, 2013, in Sonoma, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
LOUDON – After debriefing with his crew after the final Sprint Cup Series practice yesterday morning, Kyle Busch made the walk from the garage to the No. 18 hauler with a focused scowl on his face. No smiles, no talking, no autographs. No time to stop.
A few moments later, Matt Kenseth came out of the garage. He stopped for one interview. Then another. He laughed a few times, then took a more leisurely stroll down to the doors at the back of the rig that carries his No. 20 Camry.
The juxtaposition presented a reminder that Busch and Kenseth are different. Busch has won 28 Cup races and he’s just 28 years old, while Kenseth’s career has been marked more by its consistency. Busch isn’t shy about speaking his mind, while Kenseth’s intensity is a more quiet type. Busch hasn’t historically had a lot of success in the Chase, while Kenseth is perennially a factor.
But the tie that binds the two is that they’re both among NASCAR’s very best wheelmen – and so in their first season as teammates with Joe Gibbs Racing, the results suggest they’ve complemented each other nicely, having won 10 of the tour’s first 27 races, and entering today’s Sylvania 300, the tandem holds the first and second places in the Cup Series standings
after a 1-2 finish in last weekend’s Chase opener at Chicagoland.
“We all do have our own different mentality about how to describe what’s going on with our car and our feel and everything,” said Busch, who trails Kenseth by eight points after ranking as runner-up to him last Sunday. “Kenseth is very knowledgeable. I mean, he’s a great race car driver. We’ve known that. I think that’s why we went to him and talked to him and asked him to come over and join our team. He’s had a good sense this year of adding to our program and knowing what to add.”
Busch likened Kenseth’s transition from Roush Fenway Racing to his own move from Hendrick Motorsports prior to the 2008 season. In both cases, the new driver came to Gibbs and divulged how things were done at his own shop, and with those ideas, the team tried to find the best way to fit them into their current practices.
Busch indicated that Kenseth has specifically helped the communication in team meetings, as JGR has talked and worked through setups and situations – and it looks as though that while doing that sharing the drivers have rubbed off on one another.
Entering this afternoon’s event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Busch is on pace to set a career-high number of top-10 finishes, and to end the year with the second-highest number of top-five finishes he’s had in his 10 Cup seasons.
Kenseth, meanwhile, notched a new career best by posting his sixth win of the season last weekend. He’s had only one other top-five finish, but registering a half-dozen victories in the previous three seasons combined, in 2013 he’s found a way to Victory Lane when he’s put himself in position where the opportunity presented itself.
With the Chase format requiring drivers to be both steady and spectacular, improved consistency makes Busch a bigger threat for the championship, as the sudden streak of dominance does for Kenseth. So with nine races remaining, it looks as though Gibbs might be the team to beat next year.
And if Denny Hamlin can stay healthy for the long haul next season, a stable with three talented, proven, diverse drivers could make it the team to beat for years to come.
“I’ve enjoyed being under the same roof with (Busch),” Kenseth said. “I’ve learned things from him. Hopefully, there’s things I helped him out with. … I think that’s really helped me this season (to) look at things in a different light. Having a couple different opinions and approaches and things like that. I think all three of us are different, and I think we all complement each other.”
There are those who say the Chase scoring system was created in response to the way Kenseth’s consistency led him to a – fairly boring – championship back in 2003, but the conversation may need to change if the current points leader can hold that advantage through Homestead. If he wins the title, Kenseth will join Tony Stewart as the only drivers ever to win NASCAR’s premier championship under both the traditional and Chase formats.
“Sure, we’d love to win it in the new format,” Kenseth said. “There’s certainly no apologies for the way we won that championship. We had an unbelievable season that year. We didn’t have the fastest cars, led the most laps, but we were consistently in the top five and had really, really good finishes, really good teamwork that whole entire year.”
Junior is mint
Recent races have suggested that fast practice times translate to success on race day – and so the legion of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans has reason to be excited.
Earnhardt’s car was the quickest in yesterday’s happy hour session, making its way around the 1.058-mile oval in just 28.625 seconds, a fraction of a tick ahead of Kenseth and teammate Kasey Kahne.
Kahne’s fast lap validated an excellent qualifying lap that has him on the outside of the pole this afternoon, while Jimmie Johnson’s rank as sixth-fastest gave Hendrick three of the six fastest cars in the final practice session.
All three Gibbs cars were among the top nine (Hamlin was fourth, Busch ninth), while Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were seventh and eighth, respectively. However, the final practice didn’t go particularly well for three drivers who’ve had success at NHMS so far this season: July winner Brian Vickers timed 16th; July laps-led leader Kurt Busch timed 17th; and today’s pole-sitter, Ryan Newman, timed 25th in race trim.
Gilford driver wrecked
Gilford native Cory Joyce made his K&N Pro Series East debut yesterday, and after falling a lap behind early, he was showing 12th with 23 laps remaining in the North American Power 100 – but while coming out of turn four he got pinned along the outside wall as the field went three wide, causing heavy damage to the front of his Chevrolet and forcing him from the race.
The 21-year-old finished 21st.
Inside the oval
∎ The track did not announce an official attendance number yesterday, though the size of the crowd did not seem to be appreciably smaller than it has been on recent Saturdays of the September race weekend. Tickets do remain available for today’s main event.
∎ Newman’s car was the slowest of the 13 Chase drivers in the final practice. Kevin Harvick, 23rd, was the only other contender worse than 17th.
∎ Of course, track conditions could change due to weather. As of last night, today’s forecast called for a 60-percent chance of showers this morning, and a 30- to 40-percent chance of rain throughout the scheduled race window.
Remember, NHMS does not have lights – which was the only reason last week’s rain-delayed race at Chicagoland finished on Sunday.