|Kenseth celebrates his birthday in Vegas|
Sunday was also a good day for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development, who shrugged off a troubling spate of early season engine issues with their first solid performances of 2013.
The best day of all, however, may have belonged to NASCAR, after the sanctioning body’s new, Gen-6 race car produced a day of record-setting competition on the 1.5-mile LVMS oval.
Kenseth started 18th Sunday, but wasted little time moving forward. He cracked the Top-10 on lap 20 and remained there for the remainder of the day, despite a loose handling condition in the early going. A caution flag with just over 40 laps remaining proved to be the key to the race, when crew chief Jason Ratcliff opted for a fuel-only pit stop that boosted the No. 20 Toyota into the lead. Kenseth did the rest, beating defending series champion Brad Keselowski on the race’s final restart, then holding off a hard-charging Kasey Kahne to give new sponsor Dollar General its first-ever NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.
"I was real nervous all day," Kenseth said. "(Kasey) had the best car. I told Jason 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 (up front) where we needed it to be."
After ending his 13-year relationship with Roush Fenway Racing at the end of 2012, Kenseth admitted being anxious to win with Joe Gibbs Racing.
"I'm not a huge goal person, but my goal was to win, and win early," he said. "Nobody has put any pressure on me except for myself, but I know that Coach (Joe Gibbs) 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."
The win was equally important for JGR and its engine supplier, Toyota Racing Development.
After a problem-plagued 2012 season that saw Kyle Busch and Joey Logano fail to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and teammate Denny Hamlin lose his shot at the championship due to repeated engine failures, 2013 had begun on an equally bad note. Valve-train issues plagued the team during Daytona Speedweeks and surfaced again at both Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Toyota Racing Development Senior Vice President David Wilson told SPEED’s NASCAR Race Hub last week, “the last thing you want to do is start off the season by digging a hole for any of your drivers. It's our responsibility to give them enough trouble-free weekends and build that confidence back up. First and foremost is to 'man up' and take responsibility, then try and give (the drivers) confidence that we are going to get this sorted and put them in position to win races, which we know our equipment is capable of.”
TRD finally delivered in Las Vegas, with Kenseth winning, Busch leading several times en route to a solid, fourth-place finish and Hamlin recovering from a lost lap due to a pit road speeding penalty to finish 15th. Kenseth’s win marked Toyota’s 50th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory and the 101st for JGR. More important, a solid day on the race track should serve to calm the troops – at least temporarily – while TRD’s engine issues are addressed.
"We've had a tough couple of weeks, as everybody knows,” said Gibbs in Victory Lane. “And in tough times, everybody bands together around our place. We started fighting, and we worked our way out of some tough things."
For NASCAR, Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 provided much-needed early season evidence that the sanctioning body’s new Gen-6 racer can – and will – provide competitive, entertaining racing.
Sunday’s race featured 22 official lead changes, the most at Las Vegas Motor Speedway since 2007. In addition to those “official” lead changes – measured only at the start/finish line -- NASCAR loop data showed 31 green-flag passes for the lead at other points on the track, the most since NASCAR began recording loop data in 2005.
All told, there were 2,342 green-flag passes for position Sunday, a whopping 80% increase over the 1,301 green-flag passes recorded by the much-maligned Car Of Tomorrow in last year’s race. Those statistics bode well for the new car’s future, but the anecdotal evidence was even stronger. While some drivers struggled early with their cars in the early going, runner-up Kahne had nothing but praise for the Gen-6 racer.
"I had an unbelievable car throughout the whole race," he said. "I had a great day. I drove so hard every single lap today, and that's just the new Gen-6 car. It was a lot of fun. I love it."
Social media commentary was largely positive Sunday evening, as well, with fans saying they enjoyed the race and found it to be competitive.
Sunday was a good day for a lot of people. Now, on to Bristol!