Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano recharged
How it all got to this point is almost mind-boggling.
Kenseth never thought he would leave Roush Fenway Racing, but when late May came around and he didn't have a new deal a year in advance for the first time in his career, when he didn't have a full-time sponsor locked up for the rest of 2012 and 2013 after winning the Daytona 500, he began to look around.
JGR was there.
Unfortunately for Logano, in the last year of his contract in the No. 20, the ride Kenseth got was his.
Fortunately for Logano, AJ Allmendinger was suspended about a month later and ultimately released from driving the No. 22 at Penske Racing for failing a drug test. That opened a quality ride with a quality sponsor in Shell Pennzoil.
Instead of having to accept JGR's offer for a full-time Nationwide Series ride and part-time Cup ride in 2013, Logano had a good place to go.
So it worked out for everybody kind of.
JGR wanted to keep Logano and expand to four Cup teams in 2014, but you can't blame the organization for making a move on the 2003 Cup champion. At 40, Kenseth remains one of the top five drivers in the garage. He'll add leadership and experience to the mix of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch that Logano can't at 22.
Nothing against Logano. Hamlin and Busch both acknowledged he's made huge contributions to the team this year compared to years past. But when you get a chance to get Peyton Manning versus keeping Tim Tebow, you've got to go for it.
Or as JGR president J.D. Gibbs said as Kenseth officially was introduced on Tuesday, "When you realize there might be a possibility to get Matt, we felt like we'd be foolish not to do that."
As JGR and Penske Racing got stronger on Tuesday, Roush Fenway got weaker. You don't lose a driver of Kenseth's caliber without doing that.
The driver changes also speak to the still saddened state of the NASCAR economy. Five years ago, sponsors would be standing in line to sign a driver with the qualifications of Kenseth. They weren't. Kenseth saw that in late May. It frightened him.
"Before I even talked to them [Gibbs], I was certainly in a different spot that I've ever been," Kenseth said. "I've never got to the last year of my contract. I really felt like winning the Daytona 500, I felt really good about everything we had going on over there.
"I felt like that was going to be the time, we were going to get the thing re-signed and get a sponsor signed. We had a lot of momentum and all that, and for whatever reason that didn't happen."
JGR was able to offer not only full sponsorship with Home Depot and Dollar General but a team capable of competing for a title immediately.
"From then until the first time I talked to Joe and J.D., I felt like my future was cloudy over there and it was kind of weighing on my mind over there and trying to figure out exactly what was going on," Kenseth said of RFR. "There were a lot of signs that pointed this way."
Few drivers have been more consistent over the past decade than Kenseth. He's missed the Chase only once in nine years and finished in the top five four times during that span. He's third in points heading into this year's playoff and has led the standings for seven weeks.
If you're JGR, which really hasn't had strong leadership from a driver since Tony Stewart left after the 2008 season, you just don't pass that up. Considering pure driving talent, the lineup of Kenseth, Hamlin and Busch shoots to the top of the leaderboard ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports.
There'll be no excuse if all three drivers don't make the Chase every year for the next few years.
"We have a good thing now," Hamlin said. "But it's getting better. Matt is going to have a lot of valuable information for us. People are going to open their eyes and ears a little bit more to Kenseth than they did to Joey.
"They've got three drivers they can listen to. The most feedback they can get, the better our cars can be. So more power for us."
Ditto, said Busch.
"Joey has phenomenal feedback and notes," he said. "He's a great note-taker and does a lot of stuff that Denny and I don't do, but Matt has the charisma to add to our program a lot of the feel he's feeling."
Kenseth downplays how much he will add to JGR, but it will be big.
Speaking of Stewart, with whom Kenseth had a bit of a run-in at Bristol two weeks ago, Kenseth still can't believe he's in the No. 20 that "Smoke" drove to two titles.
"When I still see that car and see it on the track, and especially when it's in Home Depot colors, I still think about Tony," Kenseth said. "Tony made that car famous and won races and championships in it. I think about that a lot, actually. I still think about it being his ride, sort of."
That says a lot. As hard as he tried, most still think of the 20 as Stewart's car, not Logano's. But Logano did OK for himself, too. He and Brad Keselowski -- and possibly Sam Hornish Jr. with a third car -- will give Penske Racing a young and talented class that could one day rival what Gibbs has now.
Long term, Logano will be missed at Gibbs.
"I love Joey to death," Busch said. "He's one of the hardest-working drivers out there -- that gives him a lot of namesake in this sport. I wish Joey would stay, but obviously if there's something better, you've got to do what's best for you."
That's what this came down to, everybody doing what's best for themselves.
"It's a different structure over there than it used to be," Kenseth said of RFR. "Just getting to your last year was really different. Getting that deep into the season and not having a lot of clarity in what we were doing, if we were doing it, what our sponsor was, who we were talking to there just wasn't a lot of communication.
"Not like I was worried about not having a job. I knew we were probably going to move and do all that stuff. It was just not as clear as it's been in years past."
In the end, in an odd sort of way, everything worked out best for everybody -- except maybe for RFR, which ultimately could benefit, too, with Kenseth's departure opening a seat for young talent Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
But how it all got to this point really is mind-boggling.
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