LAS VEGAS — Matt Kenseth decided not to replace any tires during the final pit stop under caution, and the calculated risk put him in the lead.
Kenseth knows a bit about risk after his offseason move to Joe Gibbs Racing, and this latest gamble paid off with his third victory in Vegas.
Kenseth won on his 41st birthday in just his third start for his new team, barely holding off Kasey Kahne at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his 25th career victory Sunday.
“I was real nervous all day,” Kenseth said. “(Kahne) had the best car. I told (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) with about 12 to go that I was sorry we were going to lose. We were just too tight. … We didn’t have the fastest car there, but we had it where we needed it to be.”
Kenseth took charge by taking only fuel on the final pit stop during caution while almost everybody else replaced two tires. He took the lead and held onto it, using his veteran savvy — and a few screamed instructions at his new spotter — to keep Kahne’s impressive Chevrolet behind him to the finish.
The frequently laid-back Kenseth celebrated with uncommon vigor after his JGR Toyota crossed the line. He’s still getting comfortable with his new teammates after leaving Roush Fenway Racing in the highest-profile driver move of the offseason, joining Gibbs after 13 seasons with RFR.
“I’m not a huge goal person, but my goal was to win, and to win early,” Kenseth said. “Nobody has put any pressure on me except for myself, but I also know that Coach hired me to come in there, climb in that car and win races. You certainly want to do that, and you don’t want to disappoint people. I’m glad we got a win, but it’s still only Week 3. I feel like this is the beginning.”
Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski finished third, with Kenseth’s teammate, Kyle Busch, in fourth and Carl Edwards fifth. Jimmie Johnson, the overall points leader, was sixth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. seventh.
Defending Vegas champion Tony Stewart finished 11th, while Gibbs driver Denny Hamlin was 15th after an eventful week featuring a $25,000 fine from NASCAR for criticizing the new Gen-6 race car.
The win was the 50th for Toyota in Sprint Cup Series competition. Kenseth is just the third NASCAR driver to win on his birthday, joining Cale Yarborough — who did it twice — and Busch.
“I showed them a fake ID when they hired me,” Kenseth said with a laugh. “Told them I was 28, going to be 29 this year.”
Kenseth has won at least one race in 11 of his 14 full seasons in the Sprint Cup series, but the first 13 were all in Fords with Roush Fenway, the team that gave him his break in NASCAR and fostered his development into a likely Hall of Famer. Kenseth’s decision to leave for a seat on Gibbs’ team was an open secret for much of last season, although the veteran star never really explained his move.
“I had a lot of confidence after our first meeting and decided to go do this, and just had a great feeling about it, and still do,” Kenseth said.
Gibbs had his own worries before the race after a rough start to the season for Toyota. Kenseth and Busch both had serious engine trouble at Daytona two weeks ago.
“Lots of times, a victory, the thrill of it, depends on kind of what happens leading up to it,” Gibbs said. “We’ve had a tough couple of weeks, as everybody knows. … In tough times, everybody bands together around our place. We started fighting, and we worked our way out of some tough things.”
The 400-mile race was the first real test for NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car on the intermediate tracks they’re built to race. Although Hamlin commanded the week’s headlines with his pessimism amplified by the NASCAR fine, most drivers were curious how the Gen-6 would work in its ideal 1.5-mile environment.
Any drivers who still think it’s too tough to pass in the new car must not have been watching Busch, who made two lengthy charges up to early leads, doing it both before and after a pit-row speeding penalty dropped him back to 18th.
“I just hate it for my team,” said Busch, a Las Vegas native and graduate of nearby Durango High School. “We had by far the best car in practice. I don’t know where that went. Today was a different day. The worst Gibbs car ended up winning the race. It’s funny how this game works.”
Busch, who finished second in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, charged through the field with impressive ease and took the lead out of a restart with a daredevil move on the apron with 102 laps to go. He went three wide and got underneath Kahne while kicking up dust well below the white line.
Kahne set the qualifying speed record on the Vegas track last year, but rain wiped out qualifying this week. He reclaimed the lead and held it until Kenseth nosed ahead out of another restart with 36 laps left when Kahne had trouble getting out of pit row, nearly hitting Stewart.
“I had an unbelievable car throughout the whole race,” Kahne said. “We just came out, I think, sixth (out of the pit). Tough to say we would have got by him anyway.
“I had a great day. I drove so hard every single lap today, and that’s just the new Gen-6 car. It was a lot of fun. I love it.”
The Gen-6 is still a work in progress, however. Several drivers reported various problems with their cars early on, with Clint Bowyer and Stewart both dropping far back in the opening laps. After three days of chilly weather in the desert, warmer temperatures Sunday changed the track’s feel, and teams struggled to adjust to the slickness.
Danica Patrick, the pole winner two weeks ago at Daytona, struggled with her car from the start, going two laps down by the 60th lap and later getting penalized for a tire violation. She finished 33rd.