HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Matt Kenseth opened this season with a second victory in the Daytona 500, and it didn't take him long to establish himself as a legitimate championship contender.
But before the midpoint of the season, Kenseth had decided he no longer wanted to drive for Roush Fenway Racing. On Tuesday, nearly two months after RFR said Kenseth was leaving, the driver finally confirmed he's moving to Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season.
"Surprise," he said as he entered a JGR news conference, a dry quip at one of the worst kept secrets in NASCAR.
Kenseth was deliberately vague, though, as to why he's leaving RFR after 13 full Cup seasons. He's never driven for anyone else at NASCAR's highest level, and paired with Jack Roush won 22 races, a pair of Daytona 500s and the 2003 championship.
"I knew it would not only be a good fit, but it's about winning races and winning championships and you want to put yourself in a position to be competitive going forward," Kenseth said. "I felt like this was it."
But he was winning races and he was competitive at Roush, where the 40-year-old Kenseth is considered one of NASCAR's elite drivers. Pressed as to what JGR offered, Kenseth knew he wasn't going to give a clear answer.
"There's just a lot of different things that go into that. It's about 2013 and beyond," Kenseth said. "I felt like and I feel like (Gibbs) was the right place for me. I know without a doubt at all it's the right place for me to be."
Kenseth was in the final year of his contract with RFR, and every one of his previous deals with Roush had been extended before he'd gotten to the final season. But he indicated Tuesday things "got cloudy" after his Daytona 500 victory.
Enter JGR, who has room for a fourth car but was also eager to add an upgrade to its lineup.
"When we realized there might be a possibility to get Matt, we realized it would be foolish not to do that," said team president J.D. Gibbs.
Kenseth said it was RFR's decision to announce in June that Kenseth was leaving at the end of the year and would be replaced in the Sprint Cup Series by defending Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Then it was Joe Gibbs Racing's decision on when it was ready to announce Kenseth had signed to drive the No. 20 Toyota next year. Behind the scenes, Gibbs officials were trying to figure out how to also keep Joey Logano.
Logano has spent four seasons in the No. 20, and JGR wanted to keep him even after signing Kenseth. But they didn't have the pieces in place for a fourth full-time Cup team, and AJ Allmendinger's failed drug test opened the No. 22 seat at Penske Racing that Logano pursued.
"We felt like if we could get Joey into a full Nationwide deal and add some Cup races, we'd be in good shape," said J.D. Gibbs. "When the 22 car opened up, we knew it might look different."
Kenseth is expected to pick up some of the Nationwide races that Logano ran in a shared ride with Denny Hamlin and developmental drivers, and team owner Joe Gibbs said the organization will field two other Nationwide teams that will run for the title. He said the drivers would be announced at a later date, but Elliott Sadler is believed to have locked down a deal already.
Kenseth will be the third driver in the Cup lineup that includes Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
Both Hamlin and Busch are eager for Kenseth to step into the program and add some leadership that's been lacking since three-time champion Tony Stewart left after the 2008 season.
But, Busch said they'll miss Logano.
"I love Joey to death, I think he's one of the best and he's one of the hardest working drivers out there," Busch said. "I wish Joey would stay, but obviously if there's something better out there for him, he's got to do what's best for him."