Not blowing smoke: Kenseth confident about odds in Vegas
A victory last season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway helped fuel one of Matt Kenseth's best seasons in the Sprint Cup Series. Now, as NASCAR returns to Sin City, the 2003 Cup champ hopes to recapture the magic.
Matt Kenseth celebrates with a burnout after winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 10, 2013.
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
By Jared Turner
When Matt Kenseth joined Joe Gibbs Racing's NASCAR Sprint Cup program last year after 14 seasons with Roush Fenway Racing, some observers wondered aloud if the 2003 series champion had made the right move.
After all, Kenseth won a championship and 24 races, including two Daytona 500s, over his lengthy run at RFR -- one of NASCAR's premier organizations for the past two-and-a-half decades. The company co-owned by Jack Roush and Boston Red Sox owner John Henry was also the place where Kenseth began his Sprint Cup career in 2000, so there was a certain amount of loyalty involved.
When the veteran driver surprised the NASCAR world by bolting for JGR, another top organization, it was only natural to question if his decision would prove beneficial.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway, site of Race No. 3 on the schedule, provided the first real clue into what would be the ultimate answer.
After running well but going 0-for-2 in his first two starts with his new team, Kenseth scored a convincing win at Las Vegas, a 1.5-mile track that bears a striking resemblance to several other mile-and-a-half venues on the series schedule. The Wisconsin native went on to record a career-high seven victories and finish a close second to Jimmie Johnson in the final championship standings.
Matt Kenseth is seeking win No. 1 of 2014.
Robert Laberge / Getty Images North America
Now, as Kenseth prepares to return to Las Vegas for the running of Sunday's Kobalt 400, he and his No. 20 team are on the shortlist of favorites to wind up in Victory Lane.
"Vegas, before they reconfigured it, was probably one of our best tracks, and I was fortunate enough to get a few wins there," said Kenseth, who won twice at Vegas during his days with Roush Fenway, his most recent win prior to last year coming in 2004. "It took me a little while to win there again, but it's a special place for me because I won my first Cup race with JGR there last year."
Kenseth and his Jason Ratcliff-led team haven't reached Victory Lane in the first two races of 2014, but Vegas seems as likely a place as any for the duo to break through. In addition to being the defending race winner and owning a trio of triumphs at the popular facility, Kenseth boasts seven top-10s, including six top-fives, in 14 starts at LVMS. Kenseth, a notoriously poor qualifier, also has a pole in Sin City.
Last year, he started 18th but led 42 of 267 laps en route to victory -- his first in three starts with Ratcliff calling the shots.
"It was just a really cool win since it was Jason's and my first win together," Kenseth said. "It really was the start of a great season for us on the team last year, and so I'm looking forward to hopefully getting a shot at another great finish there this weekend."
Ratcliff expects Kenseth's No. 20 car to be stronger at Vegas than it has been in the season's first two events -- the Daytona 500 and last weekend's race at Phoenix -- where he finished sixth and 12th, respectively, but failed to lead a single lap. The crew chief admits, however, that the team hasn't been quite up to speed so far on the new ride-height rule that took effect starting at Race Two.
"I'm anticipating that things are going to get exponentially better as we head to Las Vegas this weekend because I feel that we were able to learn so much last week at Phoenix in regards to the new rules package, as well as the new qualifying format," Ratcliff said, also referring to the new knockout qualifying format that debuted last weekend. "Even though I just feel like we might not be performing up to our expectations that we had hoped for so far, we're learning a lot of stuff really quickly, and I think we'll be able to start applying some of that this week."
And like his driver, Ratcliff carries a sentimental connection to Vegas, because it's the place where their stellar 2013 season really began to take shape.
"Vegas is really special for this group because it was our first win with Matt last season," Ratcliff said. "I have a really good feeling about this weekend, regardless of the rule changes, and we have an afternoon of testing on Thursday, so that will help, as well."