FORT WORTH, Texas — When Matt Kenseth signed on with Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last season, he knew of crew chief Jason Ratcliff but really didn’t know much about him.
A visit to Starbucks after a December test at Charlotte Motor Speedway provided an eye-opening revelation for Kenseth.
While he and Ratcliff came from different parts of the country and from different life experiences, when it came to their approach to racing, they were nearly identical.
“From what I knew about Jason and just the feeling I had about him and watching him work and how he goes about his business, I thought like we’d be a good fit,” Kenseth said.
“But you never really know that until you get down into it and get working together.”
Two days at the track together and a long discussion at Starbucks later and suddenly the concerns Kenseth had about forging a new driver-crew chief relationship were lost.
The focus shifted to what the duo could accomplish in their first season together in the Sprint Cup Series.
And here we are.
With three races left in the 2013 season, Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are tied atop the series standings entering Sunday’s AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson starts third while Kenseth lines up sixth. Carl Edwards starts from the pole.
Kenseth and Johnson and their respective teams have stood out among all others virtually the entire season. Johnson is no surprise, having won five championships with veteran crew chief Chad Knaus.
Kenseth was more of shock, if only because it’s unusual for a driver to make a change in organizations and crew chiefs in the offseason and still manage to put together a championship-contending season.
The reasons why the Ratcliff-Kenseth combination has worked so well so quickly also provide an insight into why the duo may prove the toughest test yet for Johnson and Knaus.
“You watch them handle adverse situations and you can see that level of maturity in the driver and the crew chief,” said Dave Rogers, crew chief for Kyle Busch at JGR. “These guys are two veterans with a lot of experience and are very good at what they do and they handle adversity extremely well.
“They don’t get rattled and that’s what Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have been able to do to so many people. They’ve been able to rattle them and take them off their game plan.
“Jason and Matt are grounded pretty well. It’s hard to get them off their game plan. This championship will come down to winning or losing on the race track like it should be.”
The pairing of Kenseth and Ratcliff may be new this season, but the combination of two mature, level-headed competitors who aren’t easily flustered has produced a formidable challenge for Johnson and Knaus.
“I think it’s as close to a perfect fit as you can have,” Ratcliff said of his relationship with Kenseth. “I think that’s why we’ve been so successful early when a lot of times in this sport it may take a new crew chief and driver a while to get going.”
Ratcliff said the December test at Charlotte – set up by NASCAR to help teams prepare for the debut of new model Cup cars in the 2013 season – provided an unexpected assist in Kenseth’s move to JGR.
“You can spend a lot time in the shop and hang out with the guys and while that’s great, it doesn’t give you that experience you get when you are working at the race track,” Ratcliff said.
“When he gets in the car while the guys on the team are working on the car and the communication you have – that’s really where you build your team together as a group.”
Ratcliff said it was Kenseth’s idea for the two to spend some time after the test discussing the results and how well the two meshed as a crew chief-driver combination.
“A lot of guys wouldn’t have done that,” Ratcliff said. “A lot of guys would have said, ‘Hey man, that was a great test. Glad we got to do it. See you next week.’ He jumped all over the opportunity as a chance to develop a relationship.”
Rogers said Kenseth deserves a lot of credit for not only how well he and Ratcliff have performed this season, but also for being a valuable resource for both Busch and Denny Hamlin as well.
“Matt brought in a lot of experience. He brought in a championship. He brought in race wins. But what he didn’t bring in was an ego,” Rogers said. “He came in really humble and gave the other two drivers a lot of respect.
“I don’t think he tried to step on their turf. He certainly didn’t come in and try to upset the apple cart. He’s mixed in here just very well.”
Championship or not, the pairing of Kenseth and Ratcliff has produced easily one of Kenseth’s most successful seasons as a Cup driver.
And there is still a very good chance it could turn out to be the biggest yet.
“He’s a hard worker, he’s really, really smart and has a lot of common sense. He has a cool head,” Kenseth said of Ratcliff. “He commands a lot of respect and does a great job leading the team and we’ve become good friends.
“Obviously I really love working with him and love going to the race track with him.”
With a career-best seven victories and good shot at winning a second series championship, is there reason to wonder why?
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @Jim_Utter