Matt Kenseth: Mr. Daytona, returning with a new team (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
He's been The Man at Daytona the past two years.
Will Matt Kenseth again be the man to beat?
With a little bit of luck here and there, he could have swept every race at Daytona and Talladega the past two years.
How much was Kenseth and his canny sense of where to be and when, and how much was Jack Roush/Ford technology, and how much came from the fertile mind of former crew chief and now Roush competition boss Robbie Reiser?
Now that Kenseth has moved from Roush and Ford to Joe Gibbs' Toyota camp, an answer should not be far away.
Of course racing at Daytona and Talladega requires teamwork, and nobody's done it better lately than Kenseth and Greg Biffle. And Biffle, with the season opener coming up, is quick and eager to praise Kenseth and that teamwork.
Biffle, though, is still with Roush and Ford, and it's not at all clear how well drivers for rival car makers can work together. Or how well the Detroit giants allow their drivers to work with rivals.
The finish line a year ago: Matt Kenseth, just ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr and Greg Biffle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"I've never been told I had to do something or not do something," Kenseth says.
"The preferences are obvious, if you have a choice.
"But with the big packs, you see what line is moving, whose car works the best with yours, who is making the moves that seem to be on your wavelength....
"You have to be working with someone who understands all that stuff.
"If our cars are both fast together, and we wind up by each other, Greg and I will do that again.
"But it's a new car, and no one knows how things will work, so you'll just start the race without a plan and see how things work out.
"At the test (January 10-11-12) I didn't run in the big pack; I only ran with Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch) and Mark (Martin), and it was too small a group to learn much. The guys I talked with said they felt there would be a handling issue if NASCAR doesn't make any rules changes, because they've stripped a lot of downforce off those cars for Daytona and Talladega, and the speeds are really high, and the cars aren't handling. I'm curious to see how the cars will handle.
"I'm excited about that, because it adds a different element to the race.
"So if they don't slow the cars down or add more downforce, the cars might string out.
"But you really won't know how fast the racing will be."
The new team: Matt Kenseth (L), crew chief Jason Ratcliffe, and competition director Jimmy Makar (R) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth's personality -- that droll sense of humor, which has been so cool to watch the past few years -- may be just the thing the Gibbs' guys need....to take some of the edge off things.
Hamlin and Busch have, well, had their moments, and the edginess may work at times, but not so well at other times.
How will Kenseth, a Mr. Cool, fit in with this wild and crazy bunch?
"I think it will be okay," Kenseth says with a laugh. "I've had a lot of different teammates over the years, with different personalities and different approaches to racing. And I've learned something from all of them.
Wonder what Hamlin and Busch might learn, in turn, from Kenseth?
"Well, if they brought me in here and nobody learns anything, they probably made a mistake. I'm hoping I can learn as much as I can from Denny and Kyle, and add something as well.
"When this opportunity came up, you not only look at your new teammates but also the new crew chiefs. And what they've all got going on here seems almost too good to be true.
"Denny and Kyle and I have different personalities; we approach things a lot differently. And that's part of what really attracted me. It makes all of you think and all of you work harder."
Matt Kenseth (L): Is he really ready to play with this wild and crazy bunch? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Hamlin says when he considers Kenseth and Daytona, one thing is obvious: "He's won, and I haven't. That's something I'm missing.
"So I'm interested in picking Matt's brain: what strategies does he take to Daytona and Talladega, because that's really been my Achilles Heel."
And the personality? "He's been around, and he knows the highs and lows of this sport, and how to handle them. You could probably do an interview with Matt when he's running 20th in points and when he's leading and not tell a difference in his attitude.
"He does a good job of harnessing his emotions.
"He's a guy I've looked up to as a driver. Matt and Bill Elliott are the two I've looked up to as I was growing up. Now maybe he might not want to hear that because it ages him (laughter her), but he's smooth and he gets the job done.
"Coming here Matt probably has been rejuvenated, and he probably feels he has to go out there and prove something this year. People may be really surprised at just how good he really is."
And Matt Kenseth will be racing in several Nationwide races too, which adds a twist to his new job (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth's move from Roush and Ford to Gibbs and Toyota was a shocker.
Roush gave Kenseth his first big break, and the two were together 14 years.
However sponsorship appeared to be something of an issue at Roush's, and while there are no official dollar figures, word on the street is that Home Depot was so desperate to get a driver who could go nose to nose with Lowe's Jimmie Johnson it was willing to pay a pretty penny. Home Depot and Gibbs first went after Carl Edwards in 2011, and appeared close to signing him, until a late offer from Ford to keep Edwards in the Ford fold. (In fact, lingering fallout from that duel may have led to some of the issues Edwards had last season in that slump.)
From Kenseth's side, the thinking seems obvious:
-- Kenseth turns 41 in a few weeks, and this is probably is last great contract.
-- Kenseth is still with a championship-caliber team.
"I was really intrigued by this opportunity when it came up," Kenseth says. "For a whole bunch of reasons. Some: I wasn't 'starting' a fourth team, I wasn't going with a crew chief who's never done it, I wasn't going with a crew that's never been over-the-wall. It's an established team that's won races, won championships, an established organization with teammates who win all the time....
"I felt I was putting myself in the best position.
"My expectations are probably higher than they've ever been."
A championship contender the last two seasons, with Jack Roush. So how will Matt Kenseth fare this season with new team owner Joe Gibbs? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And that's saying something, considering he's won 24 Cup events over his career, including the Charlotte 600 and two Daytona 500s, and of course the 2003 championship.
He concedes such thinking "is dangerous, because it sets you up to be let down.
"But I'm really excited about what I've seen over here, from the people to the cars to their approach...to the organization, the whole thing.
"Now we've got to see if we can get the results."
A good fit, then?
Yes, Kenseth says. "I kind of feel like a kid just starting, to be honest with you. It may sound silly, since I've been doing this for so long and I know I have the experience, but I almost feel like this is my first year.
"It really is a new beginning.
"I feel extremely fortunate to get this shot."
That's not a Jimmy Kimmel face (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)