Matt Kenseth decided not to replace any tires during the final pit stop under caution, and the calculated risk put him in the lead.
Kenseth knows a bit about risk after his offseason move to Joe Gibbs Racing, and this latest gamble paid off with his third victory in Vegas.
Kenseth won on his 41st birthday in just his third start for his new team, barely holding off Kasey Kahne at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his 25th career victory Sunday.
“I was real nervous all day,” Kenseth said. “[Kahne] had the best car. I told [crew chief] Jason [Ratcliff] with about 12 to go that I was sorry we were going to lose. We were just too tight. ... We didn’t have the fastest car there, but we had it where we needed it to be.”
Kenseth took charge by taking only fuel on the final pit stop during caution while almost everybody else replaced two tires. He took the lead and held onto it, using his veteran savvy — and a few screamed instructions at his new spotter — to keep Kahne’s impressive Chevrolet behind him to the finish.
The frequently laid-back Kenseth celebrated with uncommon vigor after his JGR Toyota crossed the line. He’s still getting comfortable with his new teammates after leaving Roush Fenway Racing in the highest-profile driver move of the offseason, joining Gibbs after 13 seasons with RFR.
“I’m not a huge goal person, but my goal was to win, and to win early,” Kenseth said. “Nobody has put any pressure on me except for myself, but I also know that Coach hired me to come in there, climb in that car and win races. You certainly want to do that, and you don’t want to disappoint people. I’m glad we got a win, but it’s still only Week 3. I feel like this is the beginning.”
Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski finished third, with Kenseth’s teammate, Kyle Busch, in fourth and Carl Edwards fifth. Jimmie Johnson, the overall points leader, was sixth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. seventh.
Defending Vegas champion Tony Stewart finished 11th, while Gibbs driver Denny Hamlin was 15th after an eventful week featuring a $25,000 fine from NASCAR for criticizing the new Gen-6 race car.
The win was the 50th for Toyota in Sprint Cup Series competition. Kenseth is just the third NASCAR driver to win on his birthday, joining Cale Yarborough — who did it twice — and Busch.
“I showed them a fake ID when they hired me,” Kenseth said with a laugh. “Told them I was 28, going to be 29 this year.”
Kenseth has won at least one race in 11 of his 14 full seasons in the Sprint Cup series, but the first 13 were all in Fords with Roush Fenway, the team that gave him his break in NASCAR and fostered his development into a likely Hall of Famer.