Mark Story: Defending Daytona champ Kenseth expects to be energized by team switch

mstory@herald-leader.com,Mark StoryFebruary 21, 2013 

As one would expect of a Cambridge, Wis., product, NASCAR star Matt Kenseth is a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan. During the year (2003) of his Sprint Cup championship season, Kenseth even traded helmets with Packers star Brett Favre at a Monday Night Football game.

So Kenseth knows how jarring it was for Cheese-heads to see Favre end his career wearing the uniforms of the New York Jets and then the Minnesota Vikings.

Yet when Kenseth, 40, attempts to repeat as Daytona 500 champion Sunday, he will be subjecting NASCAR followers to a Favre-level viewing adjustment. After spending 13 years — winning 24 races and two Daytona 500s — driving Fords for car owner Jack Roush, Kenseth will launch a new phase of his career Sunday in a Toyota Camry owned by Joe Gibbs.

"It's exciting," Kenseth said of his midlife job switch. "Everything about the change has been good. I'm extremely excited. Really enthused. My expectations are high."

At Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth will inherit the No. 20 car that Tony Stewart piloted to two Cup Series championships. Once Smoke left JGR, Joey Logano was unable to consistently live up to that elite standard.

Enter Kenseth.

In choosing to move as a NASCAR free agent, Kenseth gave up Roush Fenway Racing's No. 17 Ford — the car he drove to stardom. Among current Sprint Cup drivers, only Jeff Gordon has been with the same team longer than Kenseth had been with Roush.

"Really, a lot of stuff (went into the decision to switch teams)," Kenseth said this month during a promotional appearance at the Toyota manufacturing plant in Georgetown. "I think, really, at the end of the day, you try to look at putting yourself in the position where you think you can be most successful, the best place for you and your career moving forward. When this opportunity came up, I just felt like, without a doubt, this was it."

At JGR, Kenseth will join a star-powered driving trio that also includes Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Combined, those three have won 47 Cup races since 2008.

By way of comparison, the three most famous drivers for NASCAR mega-team Hendrick Motorsports — Jimmie Johnson, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — have won "only" 35 races over the same time frame.

"There's a lot I'm going to be able to learn from Matt," Hamlin said. "Kyle Busch, when he came to our team, he turned me into a winner in the Cup Series, a guy who can win multiple times every year. (Busch) made me raise my game.

"I think Matt is going to do exactly the same thing. If I am going to win a championship, I think it is going to be having to go through one of my teammates."

A protege of Mark Martin, Kenseth drove his first full Cup season in 2000 for car owner Roush, a Berea College graduate. That year, Kenseth earned his first victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and beat out Dale Earnhardt Jr. for Rookie of the Year honors.

The Wisconsin product won a Cup Series-high five races in 2002, then followed that up the next season by winning the season points championship. His first Daytona 500 win came in 2009. Last year, Kenseth had a strong car, winning three times and finishing seventh in points.

That's a lot of success to leave behind.

"It's hard to really talk about a lot of it," Kenseth said of his rationale for switching teams. "Sometimes, you just get a feeling about what you should do. It just felt like (Joe Gibbs Racing) was going to be the best spot for me and the best chance for me to be successful."

Last winter, to commemorate the success he had with Roush, Kenseth gave his former teammates bottles of champagne as Christmas gifts. On the labels were listed some of the achievements Kenseth and his No. 17 team compiled. The driver autographed each bottle.

"A lot of the guys over there (at Roush Fenway) have been good friends for a lot of years," Kenseth said. "I've got some family that works over there. I'd been part of that a long time. I was trying to think of something, just wanted to go over there and shake everybody's hand and give them a little gift. Most people, it seemed like they liked it and appreciated it."

On Sunday, Kenseth hopes to pop the champagne after NASCAR's marquee event for a second straight year — just do it with a different team.

"I'm looking forward to this challenge," Kenseth said. "I think this is going to be a really good change for me."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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