LAS VEGAS — Mild-mannered, low-key Matt Kenseth was anything but on Sunday.
There was a very good reason.
Kenseth, who had spent virtually his entire NASCAR career with team owner Jack Roush and Ford Racing, made a dramatic change of scenery in the offseason, joining Joe Gibbs Racing and the Toyota camp.
A lot was expected out of the move, at least from Kenseth himself, and he was overjoyed at being able to deliver a victory in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
As the laps wound down in Sunday’s race as Kenseth fought to hold off the fast-approaching Kasey Kahne, Kenseth’s voice grew louder on his team radio and filled with emotion as he asked for his spotter’s help in clearing the lapped traffic ahead.
When his victory was secure, he was literally screaming with joy.
“You know, I was pretty comfortable where I was at. We had an organization that could win races,” Kenseth said of his tenure at Roush Fenway Racing. “Pretty comfortable, and although I knew it’s not really that much of a risk and I’m 100 percent sure it was the right thing and all that, but still, there’s some pressure, there’s some unknowns.
“To come over here and get in that car, I know they’re expecting me to perform and do my job.”
Nobody at JGR is arguing the results.
“Obviously, Matt has just been special. I think he brings a lot to (the organization) and I think Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch) both really respect him,” said team owner Joe Gibbs.
“I think that’s helped a lot. I think he kind of likes working with them, so we’ve got three guys that really can get after it and drive a race car.”
Although Kenseth is not a fan of setting goals, his new crew chief Jason Ratcliff said it’s been hard not to.
“I knew this day would come, but to do it just in our third race is really special obviously,” he said. “The hard work that these guys have put in over the winter, 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.”
The win was Kenseth’s 25 th of his Cup career and his third at Las Vegas. He also became just the third driver in history to win a race on his birthday, joining Cale Yarborough (who did it twice) and Busch.
Kenseth jumped 11 spots in the series standings to seventh and trails leader Jimmie Johnson by 36 points after three races.
In what has become typical fashion, Kenseth didn’t move into contention for the win until late in the race. He led one lap early during a round of green-flag pit stop and then didn’t pop into the top-five again until Lap 180 of the 267-lap race.
Kenseth took the lead on Lap 227 during a round of pit stops under caution in which he and Brad Keselowski took only fuel and no new tires.
Ryan Newman’s blown engine brought out another caution on Lap 236, which set up the final six-lap dash to the finish.
“I’m pretty fired up to win with these guys. I hope there are a lot more in front of us, but just really excited to be part of the organization and part of the family,” Kenseth said.
“They’ve made me feel so welcome, and part of that group, and I’m just glad that I was able to do my job and get the win and hopefully we can keep moving forward.”
Keselowski finished third, Busch was fourth and last weekend’s winner, Carl Edwards, was fifth. Johnson finished sixth and continues to lead the series standings, holding a five-point advantage over Keselowski.
With two fresh tires on his last stop, Kahne – who led the most laps Sunday (114) – thought he had enough time left to catch and pass Kenseth.
“I felt really confident, that when I got to him I’d be able to do (to pass him) like I had raced with Kyle (Busch) and Jimmie (Johnson) earlier in the race,” Kahne said.
“When I got to Matt, I couldn’t do it so I was trying to brake in and mess with anything that I could – lift early, lift late, try it all – and just couldn’t find a way past him.”