Will any NASCAR driver replicate 2013’s Matt Kenseth storyline?

jutter@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 11, 2014 

— A big question stood out at this week’sNASCAR preseason testing: Who in the Sprint Cup Series this season can replicate the Matt Kenseth storyline of 2013?

We’re not talking about just success on the track, rather the successful transition.

While Kenseth had already won a Cup series championship and many races during his tenure at Roush Fenway Racing, he enjoyed the most competitive season of his career in 2013 after moving to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Kenseth won more races (seven) and led more laps (1,783) last season than any other in his career. While most observers expected the consistent Kenseth to post a solid season after his move, few – including Kenseth – predicted the kind of year he and his No. 20 Toyota team enjoyed.

“Probably some of it that was a little bit of a surprise to me was how hard Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Bush) work at it, and in meetings and everything. Probably surprised me a little bit how much I had to talk at meetings and how much people listened to me for some reason,” Kenseth said.

“Other than that, obviously, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by our success and by winning right away and doing all that stuff.”

There are a handful of drivers who face a situation in 2014 similar to Kenseth’s last year.

The most similar is that of Kevin Harvick, who has spent his entire Cup series career at Richard Childress Racing and now will run for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Harvick has enjoyed plenty of success: He has 23 career wins and has finished third in the series standings three times in the past four years.

Will a move to SHR with a new crew chief and new teammates provide a difficult transition or tremendous boost?

Asked this week what he most looks forward to this season, Harvick said, “A fresh start.”

Harvick said it was difficult to tell his No. 4 Chevrolet team was a newly-assembled group during testing this week at Daytona International Speedway.

“I think all of these guys, everybody is fairly new amongst each other, and everybody just acts like they’ve worked together for 10 years,” Harvick said. “Obviously, Rodney (Childers, crew chief) is very organized and very thorough in everything they do and they have a strict plan and I just get in and ride around.

“I tried to keep my mouth shut, and just not slow down my process, especially with the condensed test session. Everybody is doing a great job.”

Another strong possibility is Kurt Busch, a former Cup series champion who had successful stints at Roush and Team Penske. He most recently drove for Furniture Row Racing and also join SHR.

Busch won the Cup title in 2004 and has 24 career wins, but his most recent came in 2011 prior to losing his ride with Penske, his last full-time ride with a top-level Cup organization.

Team co-owner and driver Tony Stewart said this week he saw no reason why he, Harvick and Busch didn’t all have the ability to qualify for the Chase this season.

“I’d almost be a little disappointed if all three of these cars don't make the Chase,” Stewart said. “It’s not that we’re discounting Danica (Patrick), but it’s still a work in progress. She’s still learning.”

There are two other possibilities who could lay claim to this season’s version of the Kenseth makeover.

Ryan Newman, who has spent the past five seasons at SHR, has moved to RCR and will drive the No. 31 Chevrolet.

RCR is undergoing much change with the departure of Harvick and addition of rookie Austin Dillon but the organization posted the three fastest speeds during this week’s rain-shortened Daytona test.

Martin Truex Jr., who broke a 218-race winless streak in 2013 with his victory at Sonoma, Calif., replaces Busch at Furniture Row this season. Truex lost his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing after the organization got caught up in a cheating scandal last year and sponsor NAPA pulled out.

Furniture Row is a single car team based in Denver, Colo., but has a technical alliance with RCR. Busch racked up 11 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes with the team in 2013 – the team’s best-ever performance.

Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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