Upon his introduction as the newest driver in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable Tuesday at the organization's shop, Matt Kenseth walked into the room and yelled, "Surprise!"
No one was surprised, and most in attendance laughed. Denny Hamlin, the JGR driver who will become Kenseth's teammate in 2013, even gave Kenseth a one-man standing ovation.
Kenseth will finish this season trying to win a Sprint Cup championship while driving the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, where he has been employed for 15 years. But that relationship will come to an end when this year draws to a close and Kenseth moves over to drive the No. 20 Toyota for JGR.
"This is a new chapter in my career," said the 40-year-old Kenseth, winner of this year's Daytona 500 and 22 Cup races across 13 seasons, plus the 2003 Cup title. "I look forward to winning many more races and trying to win championships. It's a championship team, and I'm really excited to be a part of it."
The No. 20 car will continue to be sponsored primarily by Home Depot and Dollar General, although JGR president J.D. Gibbs insisted that none of the sponsors were dissatisfied with current driver Joey Logano. Gibbs said that JGR had wanted to retain Logano but wasn't ready to commit to fielding a fourth Cup car in 2013 to do so.
"No sponsors were telling us to get rid of anybody," Gibbs said. "For us, we just kind of felt like Matt was a good fit and brought a lot more to the future at JGR. And I think the partners that we have, they agree with that."
Gibbs reiterated that JGR wanted to retain Logano but could only offer him a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series with the promise of a limited Cup schedule next season -- with the hope that they could be ready to place Logano in a fourth full-time Cup ride in 2014. When the No. 22 full-time Cup ride at Penske Racing came open and Logano was offered that, the JGR offer paled in comparison.
Gibbs added that Jason Ratcliff, Logano's crew chief on the No. 20 car, would continue in that role with the new driver. Kenseth said he didn't know Ratcliff personally, but that he's well aware of Ratcliff's stellar reputation in the garage.
"I don't know Jason yet. But I know what he's done in this sport, and I'm looking forward to working with him," Kenseth said.
Team owner Joe Gibbs said with a three-driver Cup lineup that now includes Kenseth, Hamlin and Kyle Busch, JGR is positioned for a great future.
"This is a big day for us. It's exciting for us. We know, first of all, that in this sport you've got to have somebody who can wheel it," Gibbs said. "You've got to have somebody who can make things go. We understand that here.
"We're so excited about next year. Having Kyle and Denny and now Matt here, it's a real big deal for us. ... To have Denny, Kyle and Matt all sitting in our team meetings, talking things over, I would think it would be hard for us to miss something with those guys all involved in giving the feedback."
Both Busch and Hamlin lavished praise on Kenseth following the formal portion of Tuesday's long-awaited news conference.
"I've got, in my opinion, two of the top-five drivers in NASCAR as teammates going forward," Hamlin said. "From that standpoint, there is going to be more information exchanged between us that we all can use. And it's fuel for me to push myself to be even better. There are tracks that we go to where I know [Kenseth is] heads and shoulders better than I am, so I'll be leaning on him there. We have a group now where there is no reason why all three of us shouldn't be in the Chase every year."
Kenseth, currently third in points, and Hamlin, winner of the past two Cup races, already are locked into this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Busch heads into Saturday's regular-season finale at Richmond trying to hang onto the second and final wild-card berth.
"Joe and J.D. have been good about communicating with all the drivers and asking us what we think about things," Busch said. "It weighed greatly on me because I really like Joey [Logano] and I know he can help us. But how much more can Matt help us become a much stronger organization all the way around? He's a former champion who has won a lot of races and is capable to running well every week."
Busch said he foresees no problems racing against Kenseth the rest of this season, even as Kenseth finishes out his commitment with Roush Fenway.
"Matt and I have always raced each other clean. Unless it comes down to the last race at Homestead and a championship between the two of us and I have to wreck his ass, I don't see that changing," said Busch, laughing.
In turn, Kenseth said he was looking forward to working with Hamlin and Busch.
"I'm looking forward to working with Denny and Kyle both. They're both at the top of their games," Kenseth said. "They're both winners, and that puts a lot of pressure on me to keep up."
Kenseth said he didn't necessarily feel like his situation had grown stale at Roush Fenway, but once he started talking with JGR about the possibility of switching organizations, he said "it all started pointing in this direction." He insisted that he will be able to compete for this year's championship and that he remains "fully committed" to his Roush Fenway team until he can make the full transition to JGR beginning next Jan. 1.
"We have done some great things there, and we have 11 races left. I think we can still win more races and try to win this championship," Kenseth said. "But this is about 2013 and beyond. This was a unique opportunity. I think as a driver, you want to go somewhere where you're not only going to be a good fit but where you can win races and try to win championships. I think you want to put yourself in position where you're going to be the most competitive going forward to try to achieve your goals, and I felt like this was it."
"We learned a long time ago that unless you have the right guys behind the wheel, you're kind of wasting your time," J.D. Gibbs added. "We look forward to getting to know Matt better, and we look forward to a great future together."