On his first day in the car with his new team, Matt Kenseth missed a gear and over-revved the engine, forcing his crew to change it.
"Where did we find this clown?'' Kenseth imagined his Joe Gibbs Racing crew wondering after that incident during a December test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Three months later, Kenseth celebrated with his crew after he won Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His victory marked the second time in the first three races of the season that a new driver-crew chief combination has won. (Carl Edwards took Phoenix on March 3 in just his second race with Jimmy Fennig.) It's also the second consecutive year that new pairings have won so quickly. In 2012, Denny Hamlin (with crew chief Darian Grubb) and Tony Stewart (Steve Addington) had similar wins that helped them to later qualify for the Chase. Hamlin ended up tying the series-high of five victories.
Edwards, who missed the Chase last year, surely hopes this trend continues. He's now fifth in the points. Kenseth is seventh.
Finding the right driver-crew chief combination is critical to a team's success and a driver's ability to race for championships. If they don't mesh, information can't be gleaned and performance suffers. But even when a pairing seems like a good idea, there's no way of truly knowing until they start competing. Edwards trusted Fennig's judgment at Phoenix that his car would have enough fuel to make it to the end. On Sunday, Jason Ratcliff's decision not to change tires on the last pit stop allowed Kenseth to go from fourth to first on pit road. Kenseth led the final 41 laps, withstanding Kasey Kahne's challenge and earning his 25th career Cup victory.
Sometimes it doesn't always work. Both Kenseth and Edwards, who finished fifth at Las Vegas, have had periods during their careers where their pairings with crew chiefs didn't meet expectations. As performance falters, the car owner has to decide if another change needs to be made, but no switch is guaranteed to be any better.
Kenseth joked how he and Ratcliff went on "dates'' to get to know each other during the off-season and better understand how each operates. Edwards met with Fennig at the end of last season. Their discussion wandered from their families to racing philosophy. Then, as Edwards tells the story, they walked outside Fennig's office and looked at a car that Fennig was preparing.
"I started to look around at the race car that he was preparing for Matt Kenseth to go to Homestead, and I was like, 'Oh, hey, that's really neat, that's really neat,' and I started looking under the hood a little bit to poke around, and he said, 'Okay, okay, that's enough,''' Edwards said. "I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'We're still racing against you this weekend. This isn't your race car.' I was like, 'Seriously?' He said, 'Yeah, let's go look at something else.'
"So he's really serious about making sure that his cars are the best that they can be, that everything on the car is the best it can be, and all the guys on the team are that way. It's been really interesting to see what each individual is working on on the race car.''
Kenseth learned more about Ratcliff during Sunday's race. When a caution came out with 43 laps to go, Kenseth's only request wasn't a change to the car, but for Ratcliff to keep him near the front.
"Game on,'' Ratcliff said to himself, and he decided to take fuel only. Most other cars took at least two tires. Ratcliff knew that changing even two would have taken a second longer than was needed to give Kenseth enough fuel to make it to the end. That second he saved proved critical. Kenseth exited pit road first.
"You know, you're hoping, dreaming, all that stuff, to work with somebody that doesn't only prepare race cars to win races, but you want to call races to win races and do pit stops to win races and adjust cars to win races and be aggressive,'' Kenseth said. "The last two weeks he's been really aggressive on both counts and felt like he got the cars good enough to go up there and win races if all the stars aligned.''
Kenseth says he feels he's had a car capable of winning in each of the first three races.
Winning early in the season not only helps with bonus points and a possible Chase spot, but in building momentum with a new group. It also relieves some of the pressure that Kenseth put on himself while moving from Roush Fenway Racing to Gibbs after last season.
"I'm not a huge goal person, but my goal was to win and to win early,'' Kenseth said. "I felt like I just -- nobody has put any pressure on me except for myself, but I also know that (Gibbs) hired me to come in there and climb in that car and win races, so you certainly want to do that and you don't want to disappoint people. I'm glad we got a win, but it's still only Week Three.
"I feel like this is the beginning, you know, and have a lot of confidence, had a lot of confidence after our first meeting and decided to go do this and just had a great feeling about it.''