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Daytona 500

Matt Kenseth looks for fresh start

MATT KENSETH

MATT KENSETH

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Driving for a new team, with a new sponsor, behind the wheel of a new car, and paired with a new crew chief and two new teammates, everything old seems new again for Matt Kenseth.

After driving the last 14 years in the No. 17 Ford fielded by Roush Fenway Racing, the only team for which he’s ever competed in NAS­CAR Sprint Cup, Kenseth, 40, will make a fresh start in Sunday’s 55th Daytona 500.

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Kenseth returns to Daytona International Speedway as the defending and two-time champion. This time, however, he will be behind the wheel of the No. 20 Toyota fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch as teammates and Jason Ratcliff as crew chief.

“Everything always changes, so it’s cool to come in as the defending champion,’’ said Kenseth, who finished fifth in last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, a three-segment, 75-lap race among last season’s pole winners. “But once we get rolling here it doesn’t really mean anything. It might mean a little bit, but very little. Yeah, it’s always great to come in winning the previous [year’s] race, but it’s really about looking forward and trying to win this one.”

While Kenseth’s fans might need time to adjust to him no longer driving the No. 17, they won’t be alone. Every now and then, Kenseth has had to stop himself from describing his car as the “the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford,’’ which carried him to eight poles and 24 wins in 472 starts.

Last September, though, Kenseth announced he’d be leaving Roush for Gibbs, where he would replace Joey Logano, who landed at Penske Racing, in the No. 20 Toyota.

“I kind of feel like a kid just starting, to be honest with you,’’ said Kenseth. “It sounds kind of silly since I’ve been doing it for so long, but really I feel almost like — I now have experience — I almost feel like it’s my first year in a way. I feel like it really is a new beginning with the best possible stuff — the best cars, sponsors, people — all that stuff. I feel extremely fortunate to get this shot and to start with all this stuff in place.’’

His teammates view Kenseth as a grizzled veteran they can rely upon.

“Matt is going to be a great addition, and so far he’s been a great addition to the team,’’ said Busch. “He brings that experience. He’s got a great car sense and team sense and so did Joey, but Matt’s got a championship. Matt’s been here for a lot longer. There’s things we can learn from Matt. There’s things we could learn from Joey, but you look at Matt as a teacher; you look at Joey as a student. I think you’ll always kind of see it that way.’’

Said Hamlin: “We’ve never had all three cars running good at the same time at Joe Gibbs Racing. We’ve always had one team that would struggle and another would be running up front and maybe two up front at the most. So, I think we’re going to have all three cars in the Chase and we’re going to have a very, very good year as far as Joe Gibbs Racing is concerned.”

But Kenseth recoiled at any suggestion that part of his duties was to assume a leadership role on the team.

“When I came in, nobody ever said, ‘Hey, you need to come in here and be the leader,’ or whatever,’’ Kenseth said. “I’m looking forward to working more with Kyle and Denny. Those guys are obviously really good and have won a ton of races. I think I’ll be able to learn a lot from them. Hopefully, I can do my part and contribute as well and help make all three teams stronger.’’

Before leaving Roush Fenway, Kenseth treated his team to a final hurrah at Daytona last February. He endured rain that delayed the start of the race until Monday evening, and then drove into the wee hours, after another delay to clean up a fuel spill caused when Juan Pablo Montoya crashed his car into a jet engine dryer.

“It was a wild race,’’ said Kenseth, who also won a pair of Chase races last year, at Talladega and Kansas. “A lot of different things went on.’’

How did it compare with his first Daytona 500 victory in 2009, which was attended by Red Sox owner John Henry, who was listed as Kenseth’s car owner of record.

“Last year was really big for us as well, for a lot of different reasons, but [2009] was a really, really big win,’’ Kenseth said. “It was the first win ever for our sponsor at the time in the sport, and they had been in the sport for a long time.

“We had a lot of different stuff going on last year as you can see how everything developed, so it was a huge win for us last February, as well.”

Has the change of scenery helped reinvigorate Kenseth?

“It wasn’t about the scenery at all, and I didn’t really need to be reinvigorated, I guess,’’ said Kenseth. “I always feel very energetic, really looking forward to the season starting. I always do, although every year is a little bit different. So, it wasn’t really about that, but I feel really great about my move. I feel like it’s a great opportunity for me, for our team, for everybody. I feel like absolutely it was the right move for me to make at the right time and the way everything worked out, so I’m going to try to make the most of it.”

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.
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