The biggest name in NASCAR's 2012 version of Silly Season made his presence known early in the 2013 season. Matt Kenseth, in only his third start with Joe Gibbs Racing, gave the No. 20 team its first win since June 2012, when he won the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Having spent the first 13 years of his Cup Series career at Roush Fenway Racing where he won two Daytona 500s and the 2003 title, Kenseth accepted one of the most coveted seats in the Sprint Cup Series with Gibbs’ No. 20 team — a group that had only two wins since Tony Stewart left the team following the 2008 season. In the season opener in Daytona, Kenseth was one of a handful of favorites but lost an engine while leading with just over 50 laps remaining. He followed that up with a workman-like top 10 at Phoenix.
On Sunday in Las Vegas, it all came together for the driver, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 bunch.
In classic Kenseth fashion, the Wisconsin native showed up when the money was on the line. In a race dominated by Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth assumed the lead late — with 41 laps remaining — and used clean air at the front of the field to his advantage.
A strategy call on a pit stop under yellow earned Kenseth the point. Taking zero tires while most others took two, he led the field to green and held the top spot even after the second-place machine of Brad Keselowski appeared to jump the start.
A blown engine in the Chevy of Ryan Newman precipitated another restart with 27 laps to go. Again, it appeared that Keselowski jumped the start, but no ruling came from NASCAR. Still, Kenseth recovered quickly, pulling by on the backstretch.
However, Kenseth’s toughest challenge would come from Kahne, who also disposed of Keselowski within a lap of the restart.
Kahne, who led a race-high 114 laps, prowled in Kenseth’s tire tracks for the final 26 laps, but in an ending that proved anti-climactic, never mounted a serious attempt at the pass. Clean air for the leader, coupled with a lack of front-end downforce on his No. 5 Chevy, forced Kahne to settle for second.
“We're only three weeks in, but man, all three races we had a car — if everything would have went right — that we could have won, and it feels pretty awesome to have this win here,” said Kenseth.
Keselowski, Busch and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5 on an afternoon that witnessed five caution periods.
NASCAR opened the track on Thursday for a test session to give teams extra time with the new Gen-6 car on the circuit’s first intermediate track stop. High-banked intermediate tracks — typically 1.5- or 2-miles in length — make up more than half of the Sprint Cup Series’ 36-race season. The new cars are designed with the intent to improve action on these tracks to allow more side-by-side racing.
Still, aero-dependency ruled the day on Sunday, as evidenced by Kahne not being able to pass Kenseth in the waning laps despite having newer tires — and by all outward appearances, a faster car.
“Clean air is like an extra tire,” said Carl Edwards.
“When I was out front my car was fast as heck,” Busch said. “As soon as (Kahne) went by me (for the lead) I was out of the racetrack, wrecking loose. I had to give up 10 car lengths to him in order to get my car comfortable again to where I could drive it.”
Those teams that were able to hit the setup thrived, as five cars — Kenseth, Kahne, Keselowski, Busch and Johnson — led 261 of the 267 laps. This on the heels of a largely single-file Daytona 500 and a veritably regular trip to Phoenix’s eccentric one-mile oval.
So while the cars may be a work in progress, the chemistry on JGR’s No. 20 team looks well ahead of the curve.
“I'm glad we got a win, but it's still only week three,” Kenseth said of his new team. “I feel like this is the beginning, you know, and I have a lot of confidence — 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 I still do.”