By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
LAS VEGAS, Nev.—Happy birthday, Matt Kenseth!
Kenseth held off Kasey Kahne in a 26-lap green-flag run to the finish Sunday to win the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In winning the 25th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of his career, Kenseth, who turned 41 Sunday, became the third driver in series history to win on his birthday, joining Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch in that exclusive club.
Kenseth crossed the finish line .594 seconds ahead of Kahne, who led a race-high 114 laps. Defending series champion Brad Keselowski ran third, followed by Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard completed the top 10.
Johnson leaves Las Vegas as the series leader, five points ahead of Keselowski and 10 ahead of third-place Earnhardt.
The victory was Kenseth’s first in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry after an offseason move from Roush Fenway Racing. It was also Toyota’s 50th triumph in the Cup series.
“I’m not a goal person, but my goal was to win and win early,” said Kenseth, who visited Victory Lane in his third strat with JGR. “Nobody put any pressure on me except for myself, but I also know that Coach (Joe Gibbs) 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…
“It’s still only week three, but I feel like this is the beginning.”
Both Busch and Keselowski overcame issues on pit road to post their top-five finishes—Busch an early speeding penalty and Keselowski a dropped lug nut that cost him 10 positions during pit stops under caution on Lap 161.
The rally from the mistake left Keselowski ambivalent about the result. He was happy with the third-place finish but felt his car was capable of more.
“Yeah, I want to win,” said Keselowski who finished fourth in the first two events of the season, at Daytona and Phoenix. “It’s a different perspective, because I’m not happy with top 5s–I want to win. 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.
“In retrospect, once you get a day to cool off from it, you say, ‘Wow, that’s really good, three top 5s; 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.”
Kahne said Kenseth raced mistake-free in the closing run, despite having older tires.
“I was like, ‘Man, this is not the guy you want to have to race with 10 to go because, he’s going to do everything right,’” Kahne said. “You’re going to have to figure out how to squeeze by him. And you know he had a fast car, too, so it was difficult.
“He did a perfect job, and we came back second, but still a good run. I think we were seventh maybe after that one restart (actually sixth for a restart on Lap 231) and fought back to second, so we had a great car, did everything right. We just didn’t quite get there.”
Kahne had opened a lead of more than two seconds over Johnson when the engine in Travis Kvapil’s Toyota exploded in Turn 4, trailing smoke and dropping oil on the track.
During pit stops under caution on Lap 226 of 267, Kenseth and Keselowski opted for fuel only and left pit road 1-2, with Johnson, Edwards, Earnhardt and Kahne—all of whom took two tires—trailing behind them.
Kahne lost five spots in the pits after his egress from his pit stall was blocked by Tony Stewart, who had to slow down on the way to his pit box to avoid Kenseth, who was leaving after the fuel-only stop.
Kahne got two spots back after the restart on Lap 231, but his progress was interrupted on Lap 235 when Ryan Newman’s Chevrolet blew its engine on Lap 235.
After the subsequent yellow, Kahne restarted fourth on Lap 242. Kenseth kept the No. 5 Chevrolet at bay the rest of the way.