Kenseth gets first win for Joe Gibbs Racing in third start.
Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
The biggest name in NASCAR's 2012 version of Silly Season made his presence known early in the 2013 season. Matt Kenseth, in only his third start with Joe Gibbs Racing, gave the No. 20 team its first win since June 2012, when he won the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Having spent the first 13 years of his Cup Series career at Roush Fenway Racing where he won two Daytona 500s and the 2003 title, Kenseth accepted one of the most coveted seats in the Sprint Cup Series with Gibbs’ No. 20 team — a group that had only two wins since Tony Stewart left the team following the 2008 season. In the season opener in Daytona, Kenseth was one of a handful of favorites but lost an engine while leading with just over 50 laps remaining. He followed that up with a workman-like top 10 at Phoenix.
On Sunday in Las Vegas, it all came together for the driver, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 bunch.
In classic Kenseth fashion, the Wisconsin native showed up when the money was on the line. In a race dominated by Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth assumed the lead late — with 41 laps remaining — and used clean air at the front of the field to his advantage.
A strategy call on a pit stop under yellow earned Kenseth the point. Taking zero tires while most others took two, he led the field to green and held the top spot even after the second-place machine of Brad Keselowski appeared to jump the start.
A blown engine in the Chevy of Ryan Newman precipitated another restart with 27 laps to go. Again, it appeared that Keselowski jumped the start, but no ruling came from NASCAR. Still, Kenseth recovered quickly, pulling by on the backstretch.
However, Kenseth’s toughest challenge would come from Kahne, who also disposed of Keselowski within a lap of the restart.
Kahne, who led a race-high 114 laps, prowled in Kenseth’s tire tracks for the final 26 laps, but in an ending that proved anti-climactic, never mounted a serious attempt at the pass. Clean air for the leader, coupled with a lack of front-end downforce on his No. 5 Chevy, forced Kahne to settle for second.
“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,” said Kenseth.
Keselowski, Busch and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5 on an afternoon that witnessed five caution periods.
NASCAR opened the track on Thursday for a test session to give teams extra time with the new Gen-6 car on the circuit’s first intermediate track stop. High-banked intermediate tracks — typically 1.5- or 2-miles in length — make up more than half of the Sprint Cup Series’ 36-race season. The new cars are designed with the intent to improve action on these tracks to allow more side-by-side racing.
Still, aero-dependency ruled the day on Sunday, as evidenced by Kahne not being able to pass Kenseth in the waning laps despite having newer tires — and by all outward appearances, a faster car.
“Clean air is like an extra tire,” said Carl Edwards.
“When I was out front my car was fast as heck,” Busch said. “As soon as (Kahne) went by me (for the lead) I was out of the racetrack, wrecking loose. I had to give up 10 car lengths to him in order to get my car comfortable again to where I could drive it.”
Those teams that were able to hit the setup thrived, as five cars — Kenseth, Kahne, Keselowski, Busch and Johnson — led 261 of the 267 laps. This on the heels of a largely single-file Daytona 500 and a veritably regular trip to Phoenix’s eccentric one-mile oval.
So while the cars may be a work in progress, the chemistry on JGR’s No. 20 team looks well ahead of the curve.
“I'm glad we got a win, but it's still only week three,” Kenseth said of his new team. “I feel like this is the beginning, you know, and I have a lot of confidence — 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.”
It took 27 races for Tony Stewart to find Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year. Four additional wins followed in the remaining nine weeks and Stewart earned his third Cup championship in one of the more dramatic finales in the sport’s history.
Stewart made it known on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that his No. 14 team will not only be a force in the Chase, but in NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, as well. Stewart dominated the Kobalt Tools 400, leading a race-high 127 laps, holding off all challengers through three restarts in the final 34 laps to score his first win of the 2012 season.
“It seemed like if we could get six or eight laps under our belt, we could start building that margin out again,” Stewart said of leading the field in the closing laps. “As soon as you started pulling away, the caution would come out again. You hate having to reset it like that, knowing for the first three laps you had to be spot on and not let them take advantage of a restart like that.
“You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ It's very nerve-wracking.”
Stewart’s eventual race-winning move came on the first of the final three restarts. When the green flag waved with 34 laps remaining, Stewart, lined up in row three, shot his car to the tri-oval apron and around Brad Keselowski for the lead in Turn 1.
“The big thing was, that was when Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) had taken four tires and we had taken two. We knew if we could clear those guys, it would give us a little bit of a buffer and have some lap cars that would keep them occupied. We didn't know we were going to have three or four restarts after that. It was key to get out front right away and try and build a gap.”
Johnson held on for second, his second straight top-5 finish after a disappointing 42nd in the Daytona 500. Greg Biffle inherited the lead in the point standings with his third consecutive third-place run. Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
The win was notable for Stewart in that it was his first career Cup triumph as Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway (which was added to the Cup schedule last season) are the only two active tracks where Stewart has yet to notch a Cup win.
“I take a lot of pride in being good in different types of cars, at least being competitive in different types of cars, being competitive at different racetracks,” Stewart said. “This is one we've been close a couple times and it got away. To finally check this off the list … that's what makes today so special — not so much the time of year we're getting it, just the fact we finally got this one.”
Encouraging run for Earnhardt Dale Earnhardt Jr. started second in the Kobalt Tools 400. By the exit of Turn 2, he wrested the lead from teammate Kasey Kahne and held it for the next 43 laps. So dominant was his Chevy that Earnhardt chose to not report a tight condition on his car because the speed was so good.
“Knowing how it drove that first run, even though it was really fast, we should have worked on it and I should have told Steve (Letarte, crew chief) more about it,” Earnhardt said. “I should have let him understand what was going on.”
The car tightened up further once in traffic, and he was never able to fight back to the point. He finished 10th. Still, his 70 laps led bested the 52 he led in the entirety of the 2011 season.
Watch what you say Brad Keselowski saw a good run go bad when his car appeared to run out of fuel on a restart with 17 laps remaining while running second.
Keselowski was fined last year for criticism of NASCAR’s new Electronic Fuel Injection system.
“We're not doing this because it's better for the teams,” Keselowski said in November. “I don't think we're really going to save any gas. It's a media circus, trying to make you guys happy so you write good stories. It gives them something to promote. We're always looking for something to promote, but the honest answer is it does nothing for the sport except cost the team owners money.
“Cars on the street are injected with real electronics, not a throttle body (like in NASCAR). So we've managed to go from 50-year-old technology to 35-year-old technology. I don't see what the big deal is.”
Following the 32nd-place finish in Vegas, Keselowski took to Twitter, noting that the problem he experienced was not an empty gas tank, but a lack of fuel being delivered to the engine: “Just to be clear. On the last restart the engine ran out of fuel, the fuel tank still had gas. This means the fuel system had a problem.”
Play nice, teammates Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards may need to have a meeting of the minds before drivers take the gloves off at Bristol.
Edwards dove beneath Kenseth on the race’s final restart with four laps remaining while both ran in the top 5. The move put Kenseth in a precarious middle-lane position as the bunched-up field maneuvered through Turns 1 and 2. Kenseth’s car broke loose on corner exit and sideswiped the wall. Edwards drove on to a fifth-place finish while the damage dropped Kenseth to 22nd.
“Carl just laid back and got me three-wide, and it just didn’t seem there was a lot of room getting into (Turn) 1,” Kenseth said. “And then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don’t really know what happened.”
“Matt spun his tires a little bit (on the restart) and I got a run on him, “Edwards explained. “And then Greg (Biffle) and I went around him and he ended up getting wrecked. I feel terrible.”
While our 2012 fantasy season got off to a great start in Daytona, last weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway proved even the hands-down favorite — in this case Kasey Kahne — can find trouble and ruin a fantasy day.
Anything can, and will, happen throughout the course of a race, making NASCAR one of the toughest fantasy sports to predict.
This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits the desert for the second time in as many weeks, as the early season schedule rolls into the Sin City for the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Simply looking at the statistics, it is easy to see which team will head into Sunday's race the favorite. In a town built on gambling, this weekend's safe bet is Roush Fenway Racing. In the speedway's 14-year history, no organization has had more success than the Roush cars.
The “Cat in the Hat” Jack Roush has had one of his drivers celebrating in Victory Lane in seven of the 14 Sprint Cup events held at the venue. Carl Edwards earned his lone victory of the 2011 season on the 1.5-mile track, beating an otherwise dominant Tony Stewart in the process. Edwards was coming off two impressive performances at Daytona and Phoenix, although a wreck at PIR led to a 28th-place finish. This year, another Roush Fenway Racing driver finds himself in a similar situation.
Greg Biffle has a renewed confidence in 2012, after an extremely disappointing performance last year. He has been candid in his comments and criticism of the team’s 2011 showing and also outspoken about its upcoming trip to Vegas. With consecutive third-place finishes to open the season, Biffle seems poised to make his return to Victory Lane this weekend at a 1.5-mile venue where he’s clicked off five top 10s in eight starts. Biffle tops the list as this week’s fantasy favorite.
While Biffle’s teammate, Edwards, went to Victory Lane in last year’s Vegas race, his No. 99 Ford was not the most dominant car that day. That honor went to the aforementioned Stewart.
Leading 163 of the 267 laps, Stewart had to come through the field after a pit road penalty sent him to the back of the pack. Taking two tires to regain track position, Stewart was forced to take four tires on the final pit stop while Edwards took two.
Las Vegas is one of only two tracks currently on the Cup schedule where the defending series champion has yet to win (the other being Kentucky Speedway). After last year’s disappointing second-place finish, Stewart is eager to knock Vegas off his yet to win list.
Stewart was on par for a strong finish last Sunday in Phoenix, but an issue with the Electronic Fuel Injection system led to a 22nd-place finish (following a 16th at Daytona). Given their disappointing finish last weekend, I expect Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew to put up a solid finish this week, making the defending champion my safe play of the weekend.
Another driver I have my eye on this weekend is five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Like Stewart, the 2012 season has not gotten off to the kind of start Johnson or his Hendrick Motorsports team expected. Issues during the initial inspection at Daytona cost the No. 48 team 25 driver and owner points, a hefty fine, and the loss of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec for six races (pending appeal).
Once in the race, a wreck on Lap 2 resulted in a 42nd-place — and his sixth straight finish of 27th or worse in the Daytona 500. The subsequent penalty from the failed inspection left Johnson heading to Phoenix with negative points in the championship standings.
While Knaus and Malec have been able to remain at the track as NASCAR and HMS work through the appeal process, the No. 48 team is in a huge hole. That said, the team was able to recover nicely in Phoenix, scoring a fourth-place finish on Sunday, but Johnson is currently 38th in the standings, 71 points out of the lead.
Sitting so deep in the standings, Johnson has set his focus on making the Chase — one way or another. Well out of contention for the points lead, the former champion understands that at this point, his best bet to make the Chase could be through one of the two Wild Card spots. That means the No. 48 team will be looking to win races early and often.
And if that’s the objective, Vegas is a good track for Johnson to meet the goal. His 48 team has four wins, four top 5s and five top 10s in 10 LVMS starts. With that track record and Knaus and Malec still at the track, I expect the 48 to be among the front-runners throughout Sunday’s race, leading to a strong day on the fantasy side of things.
For this weekend’s darkhorse pick, I’m looking towards Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose. Although the driver of the No. 9 Ford has only three starts at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Ambrose lists the track among his favorite on the circuit. During last year's event, Ambrose started from the outside pole and finished the day in fourth after showings of 14th in 2010 and 20th in ’09.
Already in 2012, Ambrose and the team have shown they are capable of running up front and contending for wins. After a strong run throughout the afternoon in Phoenix, engine issues late in the race ruined what looked to be an assured top-10 run. If Ambrose and his Todd Parrott-led team can avoid mistakes and engine issues, I expect a solid fantasy day from the No. 9 group.
Throughout the weekend, keep a close eye on practices and qualifying, as track position will be key in Sunday's race. Clean air and pit strategy will be paramount in determining the winner at the end of 400 miles in Vegas.
Kobalt Tools 400 Entry List
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Entry list for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Driver, Number, Make, Team Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Dodge, Penske Racing Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports Robby Gordon, No. 7 Dodge, Robby Gordon Motorsports* Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports David Reutimann, No. 10 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing Casey Mears, No. 13 Ford, Germain Racing Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing Joey Logano, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing Trevor Bayne, No. 21 Ford, Wood Brothers* AJ Allmendinger, No. 22 Dodge, Penske Racing Scott Riggs, No. 23 Chevrolet, R3 Motorsports* Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports Josh Wise, No. 26 Ford, Front Row Motorsports* Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing David Stremme, No. 30 Toyota, Inception Motorsports* Jeff Burton, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing Ken Schrader, No. 32 Ford, FAS Lane Racing Brendan Gaughan, No. 33 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing David Ragan, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports Dave Blaney, No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing* Timmy Hill, No. 37 Ford, Max Q Motorsports* David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports Ryan Newman, No. 39 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 42 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports Bobby Labonte, No. 47 Toyota, JTG Daugherty Racing Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports J.J. Yeley, No. 49 Toyota, Robinson-Blakeney Racing* Kurt Busch, No. 51 Chevrolet, Phoenix Racing Mark Martin, No. 55 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing Martin Truex Jr., No. 56 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing Regan Smith, No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing Landon Cassill, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing Joe Nemechek, No. 87 Toyota, NEMCO Motorsports* Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports Travis Kvapil, No. 93 Toyota, BK Racing Michael McDowell, No. 98 Ford, Phil Parsons Racing* Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
*Not in Top 35 in Owner's Points. Must qualify on speed.