Last year when Matt Kenseth announced he was leaving Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing, he had been leading the Sprint Cup championship standings. Many wondered how long it would take Kenseth to settle into a new team after such a wrench, and be back to being a contender for race wins. Now we have the answer: it took precisely three NASCAR Sprint Cup races with JGR before Kenseth showed he remembered full well where victory lane was, and how to get there.
“I'm not a goal person, but my goal was to win and win early,” said Kenseth. "It's still only week three, but I feel like this is the beginning.
"Nobody put any pressure on me except for myself," said Kenseth of the achievement of winning so soon after moving to Joe Gibbs' line-up for 2013. "But I also know that Coach hired me to come here and climb in the car and win races. You certainly want to do that; you don't want to disappoint people."
And he certainly hadn't. Kenseth's maiden JGR win came on his 41st birthday, making him only the second driver in series history to net a race win on his birthday. His new team mate Kyle Busch has also managed it, and the iconic Cale Yarborough did it not just once but twice in his career.
The Sunday afternoon Kobalt Tools 400 had started with a lengthy 65-lap green stint, and Brad Keselowski took the initial lead after having being handed pole position based on 2012 owner points following the washout of qualifying on Friday. Keselowski's turn at the front was short-lived, however, and on lap 10 Kasey Kahne assumed command and kept a firm hold on things through to the first round of pit stops on lap 44.
The Friday rain had cost the teams a lot of track practice time at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and while some teams - notably Hendrick Motorsports and JGR - were looking none the worse for it and indeed were prospering, others were suffering. After starting from second place, Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer endured such poor handling that he ended up pitting early in desperation for a fix, going two laps down in the process. Danica Patrick was another driver struggling early on and quickly going off the lead lap.
"I was extremely loose the whole time. We made it a little bit better in the middle of the race, to the point where it would go for half the run, but by the end of every run I would find myself very, very loose again," explained Patrick after the race. "We knew we were going to have tough days, but this is not the kind of tough day we thought about."
By contrast JGR's Kyle Busch had been one of those drivers looking fast early on, moving smoothly up from 13th on the grid to lead a lap before the first round of fuel stops, but a pit lane speeding penalty dropped him all the way back to 18th place so that he'd had it all to do over again - which he duly did, despite niggling concerns about the reliability of his engine. It was a number of pit lane penalties - Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and JJ Yeley also got hit by speeding violations, while Patrick was handed a drive-thru after the crew left a tyre out in the pit stall as she accelerated away from a later stop.
The first caution was for debris, and Patrick's Stewart-Haas Racing team mate Ryan Newman was the recipient of the free pass before the restart on lap 70. Kahne initially resumed in the lead, but he handed over to his own Hendrick team mate Jimmie Johnson on lap 74 who kept it - with only a brief hiatus during a pit stop cycle - for 66 laps, and then it was back to Kahne who held it through to the next caution, caused by a Marcos Ambrose having a minor moment after missing the entrance to pit road.
Despite appearances, Johnson insisted it had been real racing between himself and Kahne during this period and not just team mates trading the lead at will: "We were racing really hard," said the five time Cup champion. "It's fun to race that fast. We were flying!"
At the restart on lap lap 166, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne led the restart but it was Kyle Busch - back up to third place after his earlier mishap - who risked an audacious ultra-low line under Kahne to seize the lead. For a moment it looked like the Las Vegas native might just be able to run and hide from there, but the #18 started getting loose soon after which allowed Kahne to reel him in and retake the lead on lap 181. At the next restart on lap 200 following a spin by Bobby Labonte, Busch once again leapt into the lead but in a case of deja vu all over again it was once again only a matter of time before Buch started to get loose, the #5 came good and Kahne re-passed for the lead once again.
Two final caution periods for engine blow-ups for BK Racing's Travis Kvapil (lap 224) and Stewart-Haas Racing's Ryan Newman (lap 236) allowed Matt Kenseth to take the lead by opting for fuel-only while most other teams took varying two- and four-tyre strategies in their final pit stop. Kahne had dropped down to sixth after finding himself blocked in by Tony Stewart as he'd tried to exit his pit stall, and Busch was down to seventh after needing set-up adjustments to overcome the #18's tendency to looseness.
At the restart, Kenseth was able to stay ahead despite his older rubber, and while Kahne was rapidly back into second spot with 25 laps to go he still needed those crucial few laps to get the #5 back into its sweet spot again, just as had been the case earlier in the day. Once it was, Kahne was back to being the fastest man on the track; but by this point, Kenseth had managed to pull out enough of a lead to allow him to just hold off Kahne to the finish line.
"I was real nervous," said Kenseth, admitting that it had been a close-run thing with Kahne at the end. "All day he had the best car ... I was getting too tight and I was killing the right front. I just had to make sure I stayed in front of him. Didn't have quite the fastest car there at the end, but we had it where it needed to be.
"Great pit stops, great pit strategy - we were in the right place at the right time and took advantage of it today," he added, before going on to pay special credit to his new crew chief and the pit team at JGR. "Jason Ratcliff and this whole Dollar General crew back here, these guys are just awesome. I'm just real proud to be in the seat, just glad I didn't mess it up for them today."
"I had an unbelievable Farmers Insurance Chevrolet," said Kahne of his own race on Sunday. "Tough to say if we would have gotten by him, but I think just two cycles on left sides I wasn't quite as good. I couldn't turn down the track quite as well as I could the runs before. It just got greasy out there and that was it.
"He beat us, but I had a great day," Kahne insisted. "I drove so hard every single lap today and I think that is just the new Gen-6 car and the Chevy SS. It was a lot of fun. I love it. I had the car to beat today, we lost, but it was still a great run for all of our guys."
Behind them, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch had a fierce door-to-door battle for third place which was finally settled in Keselowski's favour.
"I thought we had some really good speed there at the end," said Keselowski. "I almost want another yellow to race the #5 and the #20. Matt did a great job executing the restarts really well. We were so close.
"We've had a shot at winning all three races and come up short, whether it's circumstances or bad luck or, today, just a little bit of execution," he added.
As for Busch, he was reasonably happy with fourth place after his early pit lane speeding penalty. "I made a mistake and got us mired back in traffic, but we fought hard and we battled back up through there and continued to fight hard all day long," he said.
"Our car just wasn't as fast as it needed to be today on the long runs," he confirmed. “For about 10 laps, the thing was a rocket ship, and then it started getting so loose you could barely hold on to it, and you try to save those tires and not abuse your stuff and it goes loose, worse. That's something we definitely need to build on and work on.
"It's unfortunate that we're not in victory lane and our team mate is, but it's all good for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota," he added.
In sixth place, Carl Edwards led Jimmie Johnson to the line. That meant Johnson retains the lead in the Sprint Cup Series standings after three races in 2013, with but his advantage over reigning champion Keselowski has been trimmed to just five points.
"At the end, I just wish we had a little bit more to go up there and race with those guys," said Johnson of his Las Vegas race. "But it was a solid performance, all in all," he added - and it's such solid outings week-in, week-out over the course of a season that result in titles, as Johnson knows all too well from experience.
Full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings