Matt Kenseth finds quick success with Joe Gibbs Racing
It would have been easy for Matt Kenseth to second-guess his decision to leave Roush Fenway Racing after a blown engine ended his bid to win the Daytona 500 and also sidelined his teammate Kyle Busch.
Kenseth could also be forgiven if he had doubts about his new team, Joe Gibbs Racing, when the engine problems persisted the next week with both Busch and Hamlin having to change motors through the course of the weekend.
Yet, Kenseth never wavered in his decision to sign with JGR and leave the team he had been with for 13 years.
That faith was rewarded Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Kenseth, on his 41st birthday, used deft driving and savvy pit strategy to win his first race behind the wheel of the No. 20 Toyota.
While others went with tires during the final round of pit stops, Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff went the other way and elected to go with fuel only favoring track position above all else.
This decision put the ball in Kenseth's hands and he soundly delivered.
Over the closing laps Kenseth held off a charging Kasey Kahne on fresher tires by mirroring the line Kahne was taking through the corners while at the same time slicing his way through lapped traffic.
That Kenseth did all this shouldn't be a surprise. The only surprise Sunday was seeing him do all of it with a team other than Roush -- the only team he's driven for since moving to Cup full time in 2000. But Kenseth has quickly adapted to his new surroundings and seems quite content at his new home.
"Just really excited to be part of the organization and part of the family," Kenseth said in the winner's post-race press conference. "They've made me feel so welcome there, and part of that group, and just glad that I was able to do my job today and get the win and hopefully we can keep moving forward."
As happy as Kenseth is to be aligned with JGR, his team is even happier to have the former series champion in the fold. His addition has brought a veteran presence to an organization that has often given the appearance of being divided.
"Obviously, Matt has just been special," said Joe Gibbs. "I mean, he came over, I think he brings a lot to -- I think Denny and Kyle both really respect him."
And that experience has played dividends early. With JGR and Toyota scrambling to pinpoint why its engines were continually failing, it was Kenseth who was keeping a cool head; fully confident that the issue would be found, solved and from there success would soon follow.
"I was probably the most enthused person in the organization leaving Daytona, I would have to guess," Kenseth said. "The stuff runs really, really good, and I knew obviously they knew there was a problem there and they were going to work on it and fix it."
Helping ease Kenseth's transition is the rapport he has formed with Ratcliff. Both driver and crew chief entered the season with the same mindset: wanting to aggressively go after victories early so as to alleviate the pressure that had accompanied Kenseth's arrival.
It was an attitude that was on full display at Las Vegas, both in the driver's seat and atop the pit box.
The normally mild-mannered Kenseth was shouting instructions at his spotter as the laps wound down -- at numerous points pleading with his team to get the slower cars out of his way.
"Tell those guys to get out of the way!," Kenseth heatedly radioed to his crew. "Get 'em down."
Kenseth's aggressive temperament on the track was matched by Ratcliff, who didn't hesitate in calling for a gas-and-go stop that jumped the 20 car into the lead. It was call with which Kenseth fully agreed.
"You know, you're hoping, dreaming, all that stuff, to work with somebody that doesn't only prepare race cars to win races," said Kenseth, "but you want to call races to win races and do pit stops to win races and adjust cars to win races and be aggressive.
"The last two weeks he's been really aggressive on both counts and felt like got the cars good enough to go up there and win races if all the stars aligned."
Almost fittingly, on the day he turned 41, Kenseth experienced a rebirth of sorts and his quest to win another title 10 years after his first is well ahead of schedule.
"I feel like this is the beginning," said Kenseth. "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."
Gen-6 passes Las Vegas test
As was the case after Daytona and then again at Phoenix, the hot topic is the performance of the Gen-6 car.
However unlike Daytona and Phoenix, where skepticism reigned and questions lingered, Las Vegas proved some needed optimism for NASCAR's much-maligned new car.
Throughout most of the afternoon the action delivered -- especially in the beginning stages when Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne dueled for the lead and later when Kenseth and Kahne diced it out for the win.
"I drove so hard every single lap today and I think that is just the new Gen-6 car and the Chevy SS," Kahne said following a runner-up finish. "It was a lot of fun. I love it."
And as he did a week ago, Kyle Busch again showed that a determined driver with a fast car underneath him can pass cars and move from the back to the front without having to resort to playing the track-position game.
Which begs the question that if NASCAR wants to create a greater sense of urgency and prevent drivers from riding around until the latter stages then maybe the best solution is shortening races?
Yeah, there were times Sunday when the field was strung-out, although that will often be the case on mile-and-a-half tracks -- or any track for that matter when 160 of 165 laps are run under green flag conditions.
But what Las Vegas did offer drivers that Daytona and Phoenix did not was the ability to experiment with multiple grooves. This was evident in the closing stages when both Kenseth and Kahne alternated between running the bottom and high grooves.
For its first time in race trim on an intermediate-style track that clogs the Cup schedule, it would be fair to say that the Gen-6 performed admirably.
Whether this was a one-time occurrence or sign of things to come is still to be determined.
The champ is still the champ
It seemed a given that Brad Keselowski would struggle early on as he set upon defending his Sprint Cup Series championship.
First, Keselowski has a reputation for being slow out of the gate -- only once in the previous three seasons has he posted a top 10 finish in the first three races.
The bigger challenge, however, was the offseason switch from Dodge to Ford, which logic dictated would take some time for Penske Racing to sort through the numerous variances. But as his habit, Keselowski has proved his detractors wrong and has done so with a reverberating statement.
Following a third-place finish in Las Vegas, Keselowski has opened the season with finishes of fourth, fourth and third and is the only driver to have collected three top-five finishes.
Thus far it's been a seamless transition.
Nevertheless, Keselowski, of course, wants more and isn't satisfied with his strong start.
He even went as far to say that he was probably going to go home and "punch some things" after being in contention for three straight weeks and failing to close the deal in at least one of the three.
"In retrospect, once you get a day to cool off from it," said Keselowski, "you say, 'Wow, that's really good, three top fives, that's how I'd have wanted to start the year.'
"But with the way I finished last year, I wanted to win. I wanted to win all three of these races, and I'm not happy unless we can do that."
This is an admirable attitude to possess, but in the big picture Keselowski shouldn't lose sight of the fact that through three weeks he looks even stronger than he did a year ago. And while Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kenseth may have already won this season, the man who won the biggest prize a year ago looks on pace to do so once again.
"I want to win really bad," said Keselowski. "But I guess the consolation is starting out the year with three solid finishes and a top five and just kind of backing up where we finished last year with solid runs.
"But still, like I said, solid day, great effort, and we're off to a really solid start, really the best start of my career by far."