Sylvania 300 2013: How Matt Kenseth and JGR Are Making Magic This Season

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2013

Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch hit it off right from the start of the season as new teammates and have gone on to bring out the best in each other.
Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch hit it off right from the start of the season as new teammates and have gone on to bring out the best in each other.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Two Chase races, two one-two finishes by Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.

And unless Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing or Penske Racing step up to the plate, I won't be surprised if the Joe Gibbs Racing juggernaut of Kenseth and Busch make it another one-two finish this coming Sunday at Dover.

Numerous stories have been written, especially the last several weeks both prior to and after the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, wondering what has been the reason for JGR's supremacy this season.

Think of it: 11 wins in 28 races. That's stout in any team's scorecard. And the more I thought about why JGR has been so magical this season, I think I figured out the answer that everyone else still hasn't.

While they're certainly a significant part of the success at JGR in 2013, Kenseth and Busch are not the sole reason.

Rather, the magic has come from the organization's three crew chiefs, namely Jason Ratcliff (Kenseth), Dave Rogers (Busch) and, even though his driver didn't make the Chase, Darian Grubb, who held things together during an injury-filled and oftentimes frustration-filled season for Deny Hamlin.

But there's more to the magic solution than just who's calling the signals atop the pit box. If you go back in time over the last five seasons at JGR (eight in Hamlin's case), there has never been the kind of chemistry between JGR drivers, crew chiefs and pit crews as we've seen this season.

The joining of Ratcliff and Kenseth has been nothing short of a stroke of genius by team owner Joe Gibbs and president J.D. Gibbs. Ratcliff took a veteran driver who was arguably among the most underrated in the game and turned him into one of the most dangerous in just 28 races.

In fact, Kenseth has become Jimmie Johnson-like dangerous. Not only did Kenseth win five races during the 26-race regular season, he's started off the 10-race Chase with back-to-back wins at Chicago and Sunday at New Hampshire.

And the way the No. 20 team has performed so strongly, if not dominating, leading Kenseth to a career-high seven wins, it's not out of the realm of possibility to think the Kenseth-Ratcliff pairing still has two, maybe three more wins in them in the eight remaining races left in the Chase.

At the same time, I wouldn't be surprised to see Kenseth go on to win all 10 races of the Chase; he and his team are doing that well.

Then there's Rogers, who has unquestionably been the key to Busch's resurgence this year after a trouble-filled 2011 and a lackluster 2012.

As for Grubb, he was the glue that held the No. 11 team together after Hamlin was injured at California early in the season and was forced to miss four races, and then had an up-and-down road from that point forward.

Gibbs has been a master at pairing the right personnel over the years, both in the NFL as coach of the Washington Redskins, as well as during his nearly 20-year tenure as a NASCAR team owner.

But even Gibbs can sometimes get pairings wrong.

Let's examine some of those:

When Busch joined JGR in 2008 and was paired with Steve Addington, it seemed to be a match made in heaven. Busch would win a career-high eight races that season and go on to win a total of 12 events with Addington atop the pit box.

But for as strong as their chemistry looked in 2008, Addington was out as Busch's crew chief three races from the end of the following season.

And, I might point out, that even with his eight wins in 2008, Busch ultimately finished 10th in the 2008 Chase and completely missed the playoffs in 2009, ultimately leading to Addington's ouster.

Then there was Rogers. He replaced Addington and led Busch back to prominence, with Chase appearances in 2010 (finished eighth) and 2011 (12th) before Kyle missed the playoffs once again in 2012.

Gibbs could have done to Rogers what he did to Addington, but chose to stay the course. And voila, look where they are in 2013: in second place, right behind Kenseth.

Since joining JGR after being unceremoniously dumped after leading Tony Stewart to five Chase wins and his third Cup championship in 2011, Grubb found a much more welcoming home at JGR in 2012.

He helped lead Hamlin to five wins and a sixth-place finish in the Chase, with high expectations for 2013 until the fiasco at California.

Granted, Mike Ford directed Hamlin to six straight Chase appearances—including a runner-up finish in 2010 and a third-place finish in Hamlin's rookie season in 2006—as well as 17 wins.

But there were a number of up-and-down instances that prevented what was a good team from becoming a great team.

There were numerous pit crew changes, Hamlin called out Ford and others during their union, and things ultimately went from good to disgruntled, eventually leading to Ford's departure after the 2011 campaign in favor of Grubb.

But the biggest and most immediate change and impact has been with Ratcliff.

During his one year with Joey Logano in 2012, Ratcliff had big shoes to fill (Greg Zipadelli, who had been Logano's crew chief from 2009-11), yet seemed to step right into those shoes and had a comfortable fit.

But there was something about the combination between Logano and Ratcliff that seemed forced at times. And when JGR didn't know what kind of sponsorship it would have in 2013—if enough at all— it agreed to let Logano leave for Penske Racing, and then united Ratcliff with the latest member of the team, Kenseth.

The rest, as they say, is history. Kenseth has never had such a successful season as he's had thus far in 2013. And even if he falters along the way in the remainder of the Chase, Ratcliff has undoubtedly been just as important to the No. 20 team's success as the guy who has been behind the wheel.

If Ratcliff doesn't win crew chief of the year honors, it will be a travesty. Then again, Rogers deserves to be mentioned in the same category.

Who knows, maybe they'll be co-crew chiefs of the year. It would certainly be a fitting ending and honor to what has been perhaps one of JGR's most stellar seasons.

So, see, it's pretty simple to explain JGR's success in 2013. It was a matter of the right people at the right time and right place.

And if things continue on in the fashion they've been thus far, what has been an already magical season for Kenseth and Busch is going to get a lot more magical in the coming weeks.

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