Matt Kenseth won on his 41st birthday for his new Joe Gibbs Racing team, barely holding off Kasey Kahne for his third victory at Las Vegas. 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 behind him to the finish.
Kenseth typically is one cool cat in a race car. Not on Sunday. Emotions ran sky-high as the Joe Gibbs Racing newcomer secured his first victory in the No. 20 car. 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."
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 Tony 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."
NASCAR released statistics after Sunday's race showing there were more passes than ever before at Las Vegas. Officially, there were 31 green-flag passes for the lead. 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 Denny Hamlin commanded the week's headlines with his pessimism amplified by the NASCAR fine, most drivers were curious how the Gen-6 would work on a 1.5-mile track.
Any drivers who still think it's too tough to pass in the new car must not have been watching Kyle 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. "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 and took the lead out of a restart with a daredevil move on the apron with 102 laps to go.
Defending Vegas champion Stewart finished 11th, while Gibbs driver Hamlin was 15th after an eventful week featuring a $25,000 fine from NASCAR for criticizing the new Gen-6 race car.
Kenseth has won at least one race in 11 of his 14 full seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but the first 13 were all in Fords with Roush Fenway Racing.
"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.
NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is off to a solid start in 2013.
On Sunday, Earnhardt’s seventh-place finish at Las Vegas was his best result at the track in five years and his third consecutive top-10 finish this season. He’s currently third in the standings and trails leader and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson by 10 points.
“We ran a little bit better than we finished,” Earnhardt said. “I just needed a little track position at the end. I couldn’t really get going.
“The car was pretty good — not exceptional — but we got a pretty good start to the season. We’re working on it, trying to improve. And we’re running up front, so I’m happy about that.”
Although Earnhardt developed a loose condition in the early stages, crew chief Steve Letarte was able to make the necessary adjustments to keep the No. 88 car in the front pack all day. Overall, Earnhardt says he “loved” the slick track conditions.
“It was so much fun,” Earnhardt said. “We were moving all over the racetrack. Aside from the bumps, I’m not a big fan of the bumps down in Turn 1, but the surface and raceability, man, here is what all tracks should strive for. There are a few just like it on the circuit like Atlanta, but all the tracks ought to shoot for something like this.”
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.
Next up for the Sprint Cup drivers is Bristol on Sunday, March 17 (2 p.m. ET, FOX)—Race 4 of 36 en route to Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 15-17). The Top 12 drivers in points after Race 26 qualify to contend for the 2013 Sprint Cup Championship, to be crowned in Miami on Nov. 17.
Tickets for NASCAR’s series-crowning Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 15-17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—go on sale to the general public on May 1. Renew your championship tickets today! Be a part of the most exciting race weekend in America November 15-17. Save as much as $40 per ticket and keep the same seat as last year. Be first in line to upgrade, exchange, or add seats before the general public.
NASCAR Ford Championship Weekend Renewal Deadline: March 29, 2013
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