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The Inside Line: Kenseth having stellar first year with JGR

3:39 PM, Apr 22, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Matt Kenseth has said he's "living the dream" in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

With two wins in eight races, it's no wonder Kenseth thinks this might be his best year in the Sprint Cup Series. Sure, he's won multiple races up to this point in a season before, but doing so with a new team, which has him fired up.

Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion, spent his first 13 full seasons in NASCAR's top series with Roush Fenway Racing before heading over to JGR, replacing Joey Logano in the No. 20 Toyota. Logano moved over to Penske Racing to drive the No. 22 Ford and team with defending series champion Brad Keselowski.

Last June, Kenseth revealed he was departing Roush Fenway at season's end. There had been speculation that he would leave the racing organization due to sponsorship issues with his No. 17 team. In September, to know one's surprise, JGR announced that Kenseth would take over driving duties of the No. 20 car, starting with the 2013 season. Two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took over Kenseth's ride in the No. 17.

"I just knew (Joe Gibbs Racing) was the right place for me with the right group at the right time and all that stuff," Kenseth said. "I just knew that was where I needed to be and where I felt like I had the best chance to be the most successful."

Kenseth ended his tenure with Roush Fenway on a high note, winning two races in the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, including one at Kansas. He started off last season with a bang by winning the rain-delayed Daytona 500, his second victory in NASCAR's most prestigious race.

On Sunday, Kenseth picked up his second straight victory at Kansas. He started on the pole and led a race-high 163 laps but had to hold off a hard-charging Kasey Kahne in the closing laps.

JGR has already won four races this year. Kyle Busch claimed victories in Fontana, Calif., and Texas. Kenseth's first win of the season came at Las Vegas, in just his third start with the team.

Kenseth's teammate, Denny Hamlin, has been sidelined the last three races due to his back injury. Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his lower back during an accident on the final lap at Fontana. He is hoping to return to competition this coming weekend at Richmond, his home track.

Kenseth is currently eighth in the point standings. He is 59 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, who also has a pair of wins this season. In his first race with JGR, Kenseth finished 37th in the Daytona 500. He had led 86 laps before engine failure put him out of the event with 50 laps to go. The 41- year-old driver has led laps in six races this year.

"I think it can always go better, but things have been pretty good from a performance standpoint," Kenseth said. "I think as an organization one of our cars, if all the stars would have aligned, could have won every race this year, if everything would have worked out. The only place I feel like we really kind of somewhat missed it was California, but the 18 (Kyle Busch) won there. Other than that, we've had cars that have been capable of running in the top three or four every week.

"Did I expect that? I kind of did. I hate to say I'm a glass half-empty guy, but instead of talking about it, I like to do it and then talk about it. I don't like to make predictions. I'm just not that guy."

Kenseth also had a setback at Bristol, where he crashed with a handful of laps left and ended up finishing 35th.

Nonetheless, the No. 20 has established itself as a championship-caliber team this year. Kenseth's two wins put him in very good shape to make the 12-driver field for the Chase.

"We're running well, and, yes, we're winning races and doing the things we need to do, but I feel like we have a lot of room to grow as far as our race car," Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth's crew chief said.

Kenseth and Ratcliff already have proven to be a winning combo. In his first season as a Sprint Cup crew chief in 2012, Ratcliff guided Logano to his second career victory in the series, which came in the June race at Pocono. Logano finished the season 17th in points.

Prior to serving as Logano's crew chief, Ratcliff led JGR's No. 18 Nationwide team to two consecutive owner championships (2009 and '10) and 30 wins.

"All the victories are a huge deal, and it's just fun to watch Matt and Jason, the way we relate together," JGR team president J.D. Gibbs said. "And I've said it before, the work Jason does, it's hard, long hours. Matt is probably once in a while at the shop, (checking) in.

"But what they do is just so difficult, and they make it look easier than it actually is. So we just appreciate the way they work together, the personalities, and what they do for Joe Gibbs Racing."

The first two of Tony Stewart's three Sprint Cup championships came when he drove for the No. 20 team at JGR.

Can Kenseth deliver that team its third title this year? If he can do it, he surely will be living the dream.

The Sports Network

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