It was his 41st birthday and there is no doubt that something was on Matt Kenseth’s side Sunday afternoon for the Kobalt Tools 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He didn’t have the best car on the track and, in fact, he didn’t even have the best car on his team. But after a gutsy decision by crew chief Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth found himself in the lead late and with the daunting task of holding off the surging No. 5 Chevy SS of Kasey Kahne. Generally calm and collected, an emotional Kenseth held on to get his first win of the season and first as a new member of Joe Gibbs Racing.
Of course, it can’t be overstated just how good Kenseth is. He’s a former Sprint Cup Series champion, one of the most consistently competitive drivers over his 14 seasons and potentially a future member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. However, all of Kenseth’s past success has been driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Sunday’s race in Las Vegas was only his third start in the No. 20 Toyota Camry following his high-profile move to Joe Gibbs Racing this winter.
“I just really wanted to win for these guys,” said Kenseth, who was leading the season-opening Daytona 500 late in the race when he had an engine failure. “I was fired up, even though I was 100 percent sure I did the right thing coming (to Joe Gibbs Racing), there were a lot of unknowns. I came here because I feel I still have championships to win. I’m just really happy about this.”
With most other teams pitting and adding at least two tires with 42 laps remaining, Ratcliff chose to add only fuel in an effort to gain track position. The risk paid off in a big way by getting Kenseth the lead in which he never relinquished.
Kenseth was becoming concerned in the waning moments of the race as he pushed to get everything he could out of his worn tires as well as coming up on lapped traffic. With 12 laps to go and Kahne closing, Kenseth apologized to his team for what he thought would be an inevitable second-place finish. That mindset quickly changed a few laps later when he still had the lead and the checkered flag in sight. He pleaded to his team to let him know how many more laps and was overheard screaming to his spotter over the radio to get the lapped cars in front of him out of the way.
“When I caught him, I was like, ‘Man, this is not the guy you want to have to race with 10 to go, because he was doing everything right,’” Kahne said.
Kahne was correct. Even with arguably the best car on the track Sunday and one that easily surged past Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, the No. 5 car finished with the most laps led (114) but not the victory.
Though the one most important pass was just out of reach for Kahne, passing was certainly a hot topic post race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This was the first time NASCAR’s new Gen-6 Sprint Cup race car has seen action on a 1.5 mile speedway. The official race report had 22 lead changes between eight drivers and an incredible 2,342 green-flag passes, compared with 1,301 last year throughout the 400-mile race. Additionally, there were 31 green-flag passes for the lead, the most since NASCAR began recording this data in 2005.
“I had a lot of fun driving the car today and thought it was a heck of a race,” Kahne said. “I could race underneath other cars and do things I couldn’t do here in the past. I had battles for the lead five or six times. I felt I could pass anywhere.”
This is a promising sign of the anticipated action to come from the Gen-6 car when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ next visit to a 1.5-mile speedway will be Saturday, April 13, for the NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.