Matt Kenseth's Risky Move to 'Dark Side' at Joe Gibbs Racing Paying Off Big

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistMay 14, 2013

Matt Kenseth takes the checkered flag after winning the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway earlier this season.
Matt Kenseth takes the checkered flag after winning the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway earlier this season.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Owner Jack Roush lamented the loss of Matt Kenseth to what he called "the dark side" of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Others thought perhaps Kenseth, who turned 41 in March, was making a mistake by leaving the comfort of a 14-year association with Roush for the uncertainty of a new gig this late in the game.

And for Joe Gibbs Racing, there were doubters who theorized that perhaps they were cashing in a young driver in Joey Logano who was finally on the verge of paying dividends for another in Kenseth whose tank might be closer to running on empty.

Well, for those who wondered if Kenseth and JGR were making the right move last year by agreeing to team up for 2013 and beyond, wonder no more.

Kenseth passed JGR teammate Kyle Busch with 13 laps to go and went on to capture his first Southern 500 last Saturday night, then rightfully gushed in Victory Lane about how much the win meant to him. If any driver can respect the history and tradition that oozes from the asphalt that is the Lady in Black at storied Darlington Raceway, it's Kenseth. He's old school all the way.

The Wisconsin native and self-professed Cheesehead is also on a roll that would make Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers envious.

The win was Kenseth's third of the season, which is only 11 races old. According to, he also won earlier at Las Vegas and Kansas, giving him three victories this early in a season for the first time in his career.

Furthermore, the Darlington victory came without the controversy that accompanied the earlier win at Kansas, after which Kenseth's team was penalized heavily for an illegal part that weighed less than a standard envelope. And it came only days after those penalties were greatly reduced by a NASCAR appeals panel.

Kenseth's fast start with JGR this season has validated his decision—and that of JGR's management—to replace Logano in the No. 20 car that three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart first made famous.

The move was a gamble for all involved. For Kenseth, oftentimes considered on the conservative side as a driver and an athlete who enjoys operating under the radar, it seemed at first glance a risk taken completely out of character.

But now Kenseth is proving that fast and steady, mixed with just the right amount of risk, wins the race. Or races. 

While others in his profession seem to start fading a bit as middle age creeps in, Kenseth only seems to be getting better. He's won nine races over the last two-plus seasons and now has 27 victories for his career. That puts him up to 22nd on the all-time list (per NASCAR Sprint Cup media guide).

Kenseth's former boss, the irrepressible and perpetually agitated Roush, said his former driver was "moving to the dark side," as reported by Fox News and other media outlets at the time. He was referencing Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing and Ford for the Toyotas favored by JGR.

But Kenseth is seeing nothing but bright sunshine. In addition to already winning three races this season, shows he's also led at least 10 laps in nine of the 11 races for a total of 781 laps. To put that in perspective, that's approaching nearly twice as many laps as he led all of last season in 36 starts for Roush Fenway.

It came as no real shock, then, when JGR made a play for Kenseth as the driver became a free agent-in-waiting early last season. Sponsors desire results. One particular home-improvement company who spends a whole lot of money at JGR obviously was tiring of watching its counterpart win races and championships over at Hendrick Motorsports in the four years Logano drove for JGR.

The only questions were if JGR was giving up on Logano too quickly, and investing in Kenseth too late.

Those questions now appear to have been answered resoundingly.