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.