LOUDON, N.H. — Free agency is nothing new in NASCAR.
Hall of Famers Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, and Bobby Allison all switched teams mid-career. Nearly 20 drivers moved in the last five years alone.
“Truth is, the rarities are Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson going through careers and never seeing anybody else,” said ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett, who switched teams several times in his 24-year career.
But in the constant game of musical chairs, Jarrett said one driver stands out.
“There’s something about Matt Kenseth,” Jarrett said. “Nobody who changed teams has been this successful this quickly.”
At 41, Kenseth is experiencing a renaissance.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Kenseth. “Things are just going really well. Maybe a bit better than expected right now.”
Kenseth joined Joe Gibbs Racing this season after 14 years with Roush Fenway. It was an amicable split, insists Kenseth, who won 24 Cup races with Roush, including the 2003 series championship.
“Really nothing personal,” Kenseth said. “Joe Gibbs just presented a really unique opportunity.”
The Wisconsin native has been a consistent contender over the last decade. But this year — with a new car (the No. 20 Toyota), new crew chief (veteran Jason Ratcliff), and new team — Kenseth is in a different gear.
Kenseth was the first driver to win four races this season. He enters Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 in sixth place with 540 points — 118 behind the leader, Johnson.
“Kenseth is a very talented driver,” Jarrett said. “We all knew that, but we all kind of forgot it.”
Maybe it’s because Kenseth is so modest. Maybe it’s because he’s so quiet. In a sport filled with loud personalities, Kenseth flies under the radar.
Take Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, for example. After qualifications, Dale Earnhardt Jr. — a driver with countless commercial endorsements — was mobbed outside his hauler by autograph-seeking fans.
Earnhardt posed for pictures, smiled, and waved before retreating inside.
Inside the trailer next door, Kenseth was debriefing with Ratcliff.
Kenseth emerged a few minutes later, wearing jeans, black sunglasses, and a baseball hat. He tipped his head down and walked past the fans. Nobody recognized him.
“Before he joined Joe Gibbs, I knew absolutely nothing about him,” Ratcliff said. “He had a reputation to be quiet but also very serious about his job.”
Ratcliff said he was surprised by just how hard-working Kenseth is. On Mondays, all Joe Gibbs drivers attend a two-hour meeting at the shop. They dissect the previous weekend’s results.
Kenseth also comes by later in the week to hang out and discuss mechanics.
“Sometimes there’s a honeymoon stage,” Ratcliff said. “Drivers will get bored with the meetings after they are with a team for a little while. I don’t see that being the case with Matt. He’s serious about his racing, really critiques himself and wants to get better.”
Kenseth grew up in Cambridge, Wis. (population: 1,478). It is now home to the Matt Kenseth Racing Museum, on 700 Kenseth Way.
Admission is free; Kenseth’s sister is the manager.
“I think part of Matt’s success this year is a testament to what kind of person he is,” Jarrett said. “He’s always treated people well. The one thing that has changed recently is his family.”
Kenseth and wife Katie have two daughters; Kaylin is 4, Grace is 2.
They’ve been on the road together a lot this season. In fact, this weekend’s race is the first they will miss since February.
“On average, I get to see them more than I would if I worked a regular 9-to-5 job,” Kenseth said. “And it’s been really great to be around them.”
Jarrett said he’s watched Kenseth interact with his daughters. It reminds the broadcaster of his racing days.
“That was a calming effect for me to have my kids around,” Jarrett said. “It kind of took you away from everything for a bit. Most of the time they don’t want to talk about racing. They just want to see you.”
Joining a new team was overwhelming at first for Kenseth, but not for expected reasons. He said he’s been around long enough to experience all kinds of changes — rules, cars, procedures, and tracks.
“You learn to adapt,” Kenseth said. “Driving a new car [Toyota instead of Ford] really wasn’t that much of an adjustment. What was hard was learning everyone’s name.”
Joe Gibbs Racing began in 1991 with 13 employees. Now there are more than 400.
“We gave him a cheat sheet with everyone’s faces,” Ratcliff said. “I hope he went home and studied.”
But there was pressure stemming from Kenseth’s high-profile switch. His performance would be under the microscope more than before.
“When you make a change, you want the organization to feel like that change has been good for them,” Jarrett said. “More than it is for you, you’re trying to please them.”
And now that Kenseth started hot, there are expectations for a strong finish.
It doesn’t help that his new teammates are stumbling.
Denny Hamlin, hampered by a back injury, is 26th in points. Kyle Busch has two wins, but has been inconsistent.
“There’s always a certain amount of pressure,” Kenseth said. “We’re in a bit of a tough stretch now where it’s really important for us to get points and top-10 finishes.”
That’s one of Kenseth’s weaknesses, actually. His four wins are great, but he has no other top-five finishes.
He’s finished outside of the top 20 in half of his 18 races, a large reason a racer with four wins is in sixth place.
It won’t be easy on Sunday. Kenseth calls this track one of his “biggest struggles on the circuit in recent years.”
In 26 Sprint Cup races here, Kenseth has an average finish of 14th, with no wins and only five finishes in the top five.
“It’s real flat, it’s real technical,” Kenseth said. “I have a hard time getting my balance where I need it to go fast on old tires and reasonable on old tires. I can never get that feel.”
Kenseth has one prediction for the weekend: He will be asked about his switch to Joe Gibbs at some point again. And in the weekend after that.
“It was a big story,” Kenseth said. “I usually get asked a different version of the same question.”
He said he doesn’t mind talking about it. It’s probably because the change has been so good.Emily Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.