Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick show driver-crew chemistry is overrated

Monday November 11th, 2013

Though his Cup hopes sank at Phoenix, Matt Kenseth celebrated his success this year with a new crew.
Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Recent results in NASCAR have changed the way we view chemistry. Not in an extreme Walter White/Breaking Bad sort of way, but it's becoming clear that the long-entrenched notion that drivers need to have a strong rapport with their crew chief and team -- and require considerable time to develop that bond -- has certainly been altered.

Exhibit A is Matt Kenseth, who on Sunday at Phoenix turned in his worst performance in three months -- a 23rd-place finish that likely ended his chances of winning the Sprint Cup championship. He now trails Jimmie Johnson by 28 points with only the season finale at Homestead next Sunday remaining.

But despite the disappointment of Kenseth's showing, he had a hard time being upset about it afterward. That's because, in looking at the larger picture, Kenseth had already exceeded all expectations about what he could accomplish this season in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. Traditional thinking assumed that after spending the first 13 seasons of his Cup career driving for owner Jack Roush, Kenseth would need time to become comfortable in his new surroundings and develop that all-important chemistry with his new team.

Instead, it took him all of three races to reach Victory Lane with this group. That set the tone for seven wins, the best single-season total of his career. In fact, Kenseth has won more races this year than in the past three seasons combined, and he is likely to have his best finish in the point standings since 2006.

This success has occurred even though Kenseth admitted in February that before joining JGR, he did not know his new crew chief, Jason Ratliff, "personally at all." That led to a lot of discussion about how the two men would need time to jell -- possibly an entire season -- before Kenseth would start to win races and be consistent enough to contend for the championship. Obviously that was not the case, and on Sunday Kenseth chose to celebrate the team's overall success this season rather than dwell on what happened at Phoenix.

"I'm obviously disappointed. On the other hand, I couldn't be happier and more proud of my team," Kenseth said. "This has been the best year of my racing career. It's been an awesome season."

Kenseth is not the only example of how quickly drivers and teams can mesh these days. Joey Logano, whom Kenseth replaced at JGR, also made the Chase this season in his first year at Penske Racing. Kurt Busch did the same with Furniture Row Racing. And, last year, Clint Bowyer won three times and finished second in the point standings in his debut season with Michael Waltrip Racing.

This chemistry experiment works in reverse as well, as drivers who are known to be leaving their teams at the end of the season continue to have success despite their lame-duck status. Chase drivers Busch, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick all fit that category this year. In 2011, Tony Stewart informed crew chief Darian Grubb that he was being let go at the end of the season, and the duo still worked together well enough to win five Chase races and capture the Cup championship.

Harvick has taken this entire lack-of-chemistry concept to a new level. He has won four times this year, including at Phoenix on Sunday, even though it was known before the season began that he will be leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Then to make the situation even more uncomfortable, last month he insulted his owner's grandsons -- Austin and Ty Dillon -- calling them "punk-ass kids" who did not have to work for their NASCAR rides. So much for team harmony.

It is more than clear that the elements that make for good chemistry in NASCAR have changed in recent years. Perhaps the fictional Mr. White had it correct in Breaking Bad when he told his high school class that chemistry is "the study of change."

"It's solution, dissolution, just over and over and over," he said. "It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really."

Power Rankings

1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- Once again, Johnson has been absolutely dominant in the Chase. He has finished no worse than sixth in every playoff race except for the restrictor-plate roulette wheel that is Talladega, where he still wound up a respectable 13th. Even with Talladega factored in, Johnson's average finish in the nine Chase races has been a ridiculous 4.7. Now all he has to do is finish 23rd or better at Homestead to win his sixth career Cup championship.

2. Kevin Harvick (4th) -- Harvick's victory at Phoenix on Sunday was his fourth win of the season and his seventh top-10 in the Chase. Considering how well he has handled this year's distractions, there is no reason to think he can't successfully manage the transition to Stewart-Haas Racing next season.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3rd) -- Earnhardt is enjoying one of his best racing stretches of the past seven seasons, yet he still doesn't have much to show for it. He has posted seven top-10 finishes and four top-fives in the past eight races, with an average finish during that span of 5.9, but he remains winless this season and is only fifth in the point standings.

4. Matt Kenseth (2nd) -- Kenseth takes a tumble after a dreadful performance at Phoenix. With the championship on the line, he finished the race one spot behind Bobby Labonte, which is never a good sign, considering that Labonte hasn't cracked even the top-15 since the season-opening Daytona 500.

5. Kyle Busch (6th) -- On Saturday, Busch picked up his 12th Nationwide Series victory of the season. On Sunday, he posted his 21st top-10 Cup finish of the year. Those are both impressive numbers, but they are offset by the fact that one of the sport's most talented drivers is once again ending the season with no shot at capturing the Cup championship.

6. Jeff Gordon (5th) -- Two weeks ago, Gordon was in third place in the point standings with an outside shot at the title. Now he is in sixth place and easily could fall to eighth. Still, Gordon's late-season revival (eight top-10 finishes with a victory in the past 12 races) should give the 42-year-old driver optimism that he might still have one more championship run in him.

7. Joey Logano (8th) -- Logano's ninth-place finish at Phoenix gives him four top-10s in the Chase. He has an average finish of 9.6 during the past seven races, and could still finish as high as sixth in the point standings. (He is currently ninth).

8. Ryan Newman (10th) -- Newman has quietly posted six top-10 finishes in the Chase and eight top-10s in the past 11 races overall. If he could reduce his number of truly bad days (eight finishes of worse than 30th this season), he could actually become a championship contender.

9. Greg Biffle (9th) -- Biffle is on a long run of mostly mediocre finishes. He has placed between ninth and 16th in all but one of the past 15 races (with a third-place run at New Hampshire thrown in). That will get you a berth in the top-10 of the point standings, but not much else.

10. Kurt Busch (unranked) -- Busch is about to end an amazing one-season stint with Furniture Row Racing. He has 11 top-five finishes this year, which is more than Biffle and Newman combined. In fact, Busch's top-fives this season equal the number of top-10s FRR produced over the previous seven years combined.

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