Matt Kenseth celebrated the occasion of turning 41 by holding off Kasey Kahne to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season Sunday, the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The win was also marked the first for Kenseth since making the move to Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the last season.
Kahne looked to be the car to beat early on. The Hendrick Motorsports driver took the lead on lap 10 after starting fourth. He would lose then regain the lead during green flag pit stops, but still held the lead for 59 of the first 93 circuits. Kahne’s biggest challenge early on came from teammate Jimmie Johnson who has gone to victory lane four times at Vegas. Johnson took the lead on lap 73 with Kahne close behind.
Kahne would slip past Johnson on lap 135, stretching the advantage to nearly three seconds before Johnson was able to catch him on lap 167. As the two vied for the lead, Kyle Busch, who overcame an earlier pit road speeding penalty, took the lead for a brief time until Kahne dispensed with Johnson and passed Busch on lap 178.
Denny Hamlin elected to stay out during the third of the races five cautions but lost the point on lap 196 when Kyle Busch executed a wild move on the bottom lane of the frontstretch and went to the front. Kahne showing the dominance of his Chevy however retook the lead from Busch on lap 207.
Kenseth took the lead during a round of pit stops for the fourth caution thanks in large part from getting fuel only and from there it was his race to lose.
“Honestly, I was grinning inside as I was leaving pit road,” Kenseth said. “ All I said on the track, I was like -- I knew we had to pit, I was like, try to keep me up front if you can. I didn't say anything when he (crew chief Jason Ratcliff) came on pit road and said that we only needed fuel. I had him counting under his breath. I thought oh, I thought he was filling it up. I left pit road, and I was like, that's what you like.”
Despite not taking tires during the races final pit stop of the day while several in the lead group did, Kenseth was able to hold off the hard-charging Kahne over the final 26 laps for the victory.
“I caught him, I just couldn’t pass him,” Kahne said. “We definitely had the best car today… when I got to him at the end my tires got a little greasy. I think it was two runs on left-side tires made it a little more difficult to pass that final run there. Prior to that I could pull down and pass anyone on the track, including Matt (Kenseth) who was out there. Just that last run just wasn’t quite as good on two runs on left sides. We still had a great day. My engine ran unbelievable, the car was perfect and the guys did an awesome job. We just didn’t get the win.”
The victory marked only the fourth time in NASCAR history that a driver has won on his birthday; the legendary Cale Yarbrough accomplished the feat twice and Kyle Busch once.
“You want to call races to win races and do pit stops to win races and adjust cars to win races and be aggressive,” Kenseth said. “The last two weeks he's been really aggressive on both counts and felt like got the cars good enough to go up there and win races if all the stars aligned.”
Behind Kahne in second, Brad Keselowski was able to battle past Busch in the closing laps to come home third, relegating Busch to fourth with Carl Edwards rounding out the top five.
Johnson was sixth; Dale Earnhardt Jr. beat Martin Truex Jr., to the line for seventh with Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard rounding out the top ten.
Johnson remains on top of the points lead with Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. swapping second and third. Hamlin is in fourth and Edwards moved up six spots to fifth.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series next head to Bristol Tennessee for next Sunday’s Food City 500.