Not blowing smoke: Kenseth confident about odds in Vegas

Matt Kenseth celebrates with a burnout after winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 10, 2013.

Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images

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.

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.

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.

Matt Kenseth is seeking win No. 1 of 2014.

"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."

"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."