By Rick Minter
Matt Kenseth won Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in much the same fashion as he did the 24 Sprint Cup races he’d won previously — by getting the most out of his car when it counted.
He took the lead by making a gas-only trip down pit road and led the final 41 laps, holding off Kasey Kahne, who not only had a faster car, but fresher tires.
“Matt did everything right,” Kahne said. “This is not the guy you want to have to race with 10 (laps) to go because he’s going to do everything right. He did a perfect job and we came back second.”
But this victory, Kenseth’s third at Las Vegas, was different. For starters, it came on his birthday, something that has happened only to two other drivers in the history of the Cup series.
Cale Yarborough won on his birthday, March 27, at North Wilkesboro Speedway, in 1977, and again at Atlanta Motor Speedway on his birthday in 1983, and Kenseth’s teammate Kyle Busch won on his birthday, May 2, at Richmond International Raceway in 2009.
Kenseth’s victory also was significant because it was his first since joining Joe Gibbs Racing at the start of the season. All of Kenseth’s previous victories came while he was driving for Roush Fenway Racing.
Kenseth said in his winner’s interview that he never doubted he’d be able to win in Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota. Nevertheless, he was glad to be in Victory Lane after just three races.
“I’m not a huge goal person, but my goal was to win and to win early,” he said. “Nobody has put any pressure on me except for myself, but I also know that Coach (Joe Gibbs) hired me to come in there and climb in that car and win races, so you certainly want to do that and you don’t want to disappoint people.”
Kenseth went on to say that he doesn’t believe the racing world has seen all they’re going to see of him and his Jason Ratcliff-led team this season.
“I feel like this is the beginning,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence, had a lot of confidence after our first meeting and decided to go do this and just had a great feeling about it.
“And I still do …
“It’s always great to get a win early in the season, but you certainly don’t want to act like it stops.”
He said he was already thinking about what he needs to do at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend.
“That’s the great thing about the sport,” he said. “It never stops. You only get to enjoy [winning] for a couple of days.”
Ratcliff sounded as if he and Kenseth are thinking alike about where they’re headed this year.
“We’ve just got a great group here, and we’ve got Matt and we’re going to win a lot of races, I think,” he said. “I knew that we would get to Victory Lane at some point, and to do it this early in the season is great, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Team owner Joe Gibbs had been to Victory Lane in the Sprint Cup Series 100 times before Sunday, but it also was a new experience for him, especially after his drivers had engine problems the past two weeks, and one of them, Denny Hamlin, ran afoul of NASCAR for his post-race comments at Phoenix.
“In tough times, everybody kind of bands together around our place, and we start fighting and we worked our way out of some tough things,” he said.
And he said he was proud of his newest driver and the contributions he’s making to the entire organization.
“Obviously, Matt has just been special,” Gibbs said. “I think Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch) both really respect him. I think that’s helped a lot. I think he kind of likes working with them, so we’ve got three guys that really, I think, can get after it and drive a race car.”