Go ahead and give Joe Gibbs Racing the award for making the best driver change from last season. JGR's decision to replace Joey Logano with Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 car has paid off immediately. Kenseth's victory at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday was his fourth win of the year, which is twice as many victories as Logano managed in four seasons in that car.
So what was the second-best change? That would be Penske Racing scooping up Logano and placing him in the No. 22 ride. And in the long run, it is possible that Penske might end up getting the better end of the deal.
For this season, at least, Kenseth is proving to be far superior to Logano. But Kenseth has set an initial pace with his new team that will be nearly impossible to maintain for very long. Four wins in the first 17 races? Kenseth has posted four victories in an entire season only twice before during his 13 years in Sprint Cup. In fact, he had a total of four wins from 2007 through 2010. Kenseth is one of the better drivers in the sport, but he currently is on an eight-victory pace this season, and there is nothing in his history that indicates he is quite that good.
Meanwhile, after a dismal start to the season, Logano has quickly moved into contention to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He was in 20th place in the point standings eight races into the season, partly because his team was hit with a 25-point penalty after the race at Texas. In his nine starts since, Logano has posted six top-10 finishes and an 11th, including a fourth-place run at Kentucky. In the process, he has jumped all the way up to 10th in the standings. Over the past six races, Logano has posted an average finish of 7.7 compared to 17.7 for Kenseth.
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But the most important numbers in all this might be the ages of the two drivers. Kenseth is 41, and while he currently is at the top of his game, it is inevitable that his skills will start to gradually decline at some point in the coming decade. Logano, on the other hand, just turned 23 in May and should do nothing but improve in the coming years. If he lives up to expectations, then he could be poised for a 20-year run of success that will extend well after Kenseth has retired.
Of course, some might say that Logano has been overrated and will never equal the accomplishments of Kenseth, who now has 28 career Cup victories and won the 2003 championship. Others maintain that Logano is one of the best young talents in the sport and he eventually will become a Chase regular. Among those who believe that is none other than Joe Gibbs himself.
Gibbs never was excited about the prospect of losing Logano. JGR first signed Logano to a contract as a development driver when he was only 15 years old, and then placed him in a Cup car at age 18. Midway through last season, before it was announced that Logano definitely was leaving, Gibbs said, "We have a lot invested in Joey. We want him with us long term."
The problem was that the sponsor of the No. 20 car, Home Depot, wasn't that thrilled with Logano's on-track performance or his boyish looks, which didn't exactly mesh with the company's target audience of middle-aged handymen. Kenseth was too good of a talent to pass up, and JGR simply could not scrape together the sponsorship money needed to field a fourth full-time team to go along with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. So Logano became the odd man out.
For now, it is hard to argue with that decision, and if Kenseth goes on to win the championship this year, then it certainly will have been a worthwhile move. But sometime in the future, possibly sooner than expected, JGR officials might look longingly at Logano and wish they could have somehow held onto him.
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- For the third time this season, an issue with a late restart ruined Johnson's shot at winning. He then angrily motored from 25th to a ninth-place finish over the final 17 laps at Kentucky, an indicator that his car and team remain the best in the business, despite his inability to master the restart rule.
2. Clint Bowyer (3rd) -- It could legitimately be argued that the winless Bowyer should not be ranked higher than Kenseth, who has four victories. But in a sport that continues to reward consistency more than wins, nobody has been more consistent than Bowyer, who over the past 12 races has eight top-10 finishes and 11 top-15s.
3. Kevin Harvick (4th) -- Harvick has also been consistently in the top 10 (he has seven in a row), though lately he has been closer to 10th than 1st. Still, since crashing at Talladega and finishing 40th two months ago, he has posted a 6.4 average finish.
4. Matt Kenseth (8th) -- Ultimately, he might prove to be the biggest threat to Johnson's championship hopes. But his four victories this season do not completely overshadow some of the problems the team has had. In the five races between his two most recent wins (at Darlington and Sunday at Kentucky), Kenseth cracked the top 15 only once.
5. Carl Edwards (2nd) -- His 21st-place finish at Kentucky was his worst outing since the season-opener at Daytona. However, he finished on the lead lap for the 13th consecutive race, an amazing streak in a sport where drivers are only one Kurt Busch mistake away from being in a wreck.
6. Kyle Busch (9th) -- After enduring a five-race stretch in which he finished in the top 20 only once, Busch is now on a five-race run in which he has finished sixth or better four times. When things are going well for him, he is one of the best in the sport and a legitimate championship contender.
7. Greg Biffle (5th) -- He finished 34th at Kentucky, but we are not going to penalize him too much for getting caught up in a wreck that was not his fault. Biffle remains one of the most underrated drivers on the circuit and is poised to make the Chase for the fifth time in the past six seasons.
8. Joey Logano (unranked) -- Logano has soared from 19th to 10th in the point standings in just the past five races. He will try to maintain that momentum this week at Daytona, where he has posted three top 10s in his past four trips.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7th) -- Another week, another good-but-not-great outing for Earnhardt (12th). Since leading the point standings five races into the season, he has finished better than 9th only once. While he will probably qualify for the Chase, there simply is no indication that he will make a serious run at the championship.
10. Martin Truex Jr. (10th) -- Truex holds onto the final spot in the rankings on the strength of a solid seventh-place showing at Kentucky, his third consecutive top-10 finish. Tony Stewart drops out after his second consecutive finish in the 20s. But don't be surprised it Stewart bumps Truex out as soon as next week. Stewart thrives at Daytona, while Truex has an average finish of 21.4 at the famed track.