Kenseth’s gamble pays off in Vegas

Who says you can’t start over at 41?

Matt Kenseth proved that it’s absolutely possible as he celebrated his birthday on Sunday with his first win behind the wheel of the No. 20 Toyota, in just his third start with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Kenseth, who earned his third career Sprint Cup victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the win, was uncharacteristically high strung in the closing laps of the Kobalt Tools 400. With Kasey Kahne looming large in his rear-view in the final laps, and with so much at stake with his new team, Kenseth couldn’t hide his relief as he took the checkered flag.

“Yeah, boys, whoooo,” Kenseth exclaimed. “Thank you (crew chief Jason Ratcliff). Thank you Joe Gibbs Racing. Thank you, Lord for putting me here.

“This is just the beginning, man. Keep them coming. Let’s have fun.”

It was clear Kenseth hadn’t lost his sense of humor despite the pressure.

After the driver expressed his gratitude to spotter Chris Lambert for keeping Kahne at bay, “Crazy” offered in return, “Happy Birthday, by the way.”

To which Kenseth joked, “29 is a bummer.”

Kenseth drove with the tenacity of a 20-something, but it was experience that served him well in the end. He didn’t have the fastest car on Sunday. He started 18th and worked his way to 10th in the first 15 laps. He also received a bit of a birthday gift from Tony Stewart, who blocked Kahne in the pits and forced the No. 5 Chevy SS to restart sixth on Lap 231 after leading a race-high 112 circuits.

Kahne was able to work himself up to second place by the final restart.

He trailed Kenseth over the final 25 circuits as the veteran schooled the 32-year-old Kahne, much to the dissatisfaction on the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

“I had the best (expletive) car today and lost,” Kahne yelled over the radio. “Good job guys, we still had a great car today. Good job. I just got a little tight there on exit behind him. I hadn’t done that all day … the pit stops were awesome. Good pit calls, too. You did a great job of tightening it up, it was perfect.”

Kahne held on to second, followed by Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.

Kenseth acknowledged that after 14 seasons in Sprint Cup with Roush Fenway Racing, he was a bit nervous making the move to JGR this season. But considering how welcome the company and crew chief Ratcliff have made him feel throughout his transition, it’s understandable why Kenseth was overjoyed with his accomplishment.

“I felt a lot of pressure that I put on myself to come in here and perform,” said Kenseth, who led 42 laps on the way to his 25th career Cup win. “I felt like coming over here and getting to know Jason, and really everybody in the shop and the organization and everything, you know, just it’s a great feeling about the season.

“We’re only three weeks in, but man, all three races we had a car, if everything would have went right, that we could have won, and it feels pretty awesome to have this win here.”

Ratcliff, who won his first Cup race with Joey Logano at Pocono Raceway last year, said he “knew this day would come.” Still, as stout as the team was at Daytona prior to Kenseth’s engine failure after 149 laps, Ratcliff didn’t anticipate a trip to Victory Lane three races into their partnership.

“To do it just in our third race is really special obviously,” Ratcliff 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. He’ll probably get mad at me for saying that because he doesn’t like that.

“But anyway, like I said, I knew that we would get to Victory Lane at some point, and to do it this early in the season is great, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season."

Kenseth, who vaulted from 18th to seventh in the points standings with the win, agreed with Ratcliff, “I feel like this is just the beginning.”

Certainly, some of Kenseth’s early apprehension stemmed from reaching outside of his comfort zone at Roush — even though he admits moving to JGR wasn’t “much of a risk.”

“I was pretty comfortable where I was at,” Kenseth said. “We had cars that could win races. We had an organization that could win races. Pretty comfortable, and this was although I knew, and I still know 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. I hope to have a lot of wins and hopefully championships in front of me still.”

Yet after Sunday’s win, it’s likely that any doubt Kenseth had is behind him now.

Happy boy

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to a solid start in 2013.

On Sunday, Earnhardt’s seventh-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was his best result at the track in five years and his third consecutive top-10 finish this season. He’s currently third in the standings and trails leader and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson by 10 points.

“We ran a little bit better than we finished,” Earnhardt said. “I just needed a little track position at the end. I couldn’t really get going.

“The car was pretty good — not exceptional — but we got a pretty good start to the season. We’re working on it, trying to improve. And we’re running up front, so I’m happy about that.”

Although Earnhardt developed a loose condition in the early stages, crew chief Steve Letarte was able to make the necessary adjustments to keep the No. 88 car in the front pack all day. Overall, Earnhardt says he “loved” the slick track conditions.

“It was so much fun,” Earnhardt said. “We were moving all over the racetrack. Aside from the bumps, I’m not a big fan of the bumps down in Turn 1, but the surface and raceability, man, here is what all tracks should strive for. There are a few just like it on the circuit like Atlanta, but all the tracks ought to shoot for something like this.”

Don’t make an early call …

But, considering that Ryan Newman’s last two finishes were 40th and 38th, it’s unlikely that the driver of the No. 39 can be considered a contender for the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

On Sunday, Newman missed a shift in the second-to-the-last restart, then blew up on Lap 236.

“That’s my responsibility,” Newman said. “Not the guys in front of me. But yeah, the restart, if I wanted to point fingers it was the restart. But it was still my fault.”

Newman, who is in a contract year with Stewart-Haas Racing, finds himself 31st in the points standings after the first three races, three points behind 30th-place Danica Patrick.

Numbers game

3: Drivers who have won on their birthdays in NASCAR’s top division (Kenseth, Cale Yarborough (twice) and Kyle Busch).

31: Green-flag passes throughout the Kobalt Tools 400 — a new track record.

50: Sprint Cup wins for Toyota

Say what?

Brad Keselowski on losing, after finishing third:

I want to win. It is a different perspective because I’m not happy with top 5s; I want to win. You know, the last three weeks, really the last two weeks, and I’m sure when I get home tonight I’m going to go home and throw around some pillows and punch some things because 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.