Matt Kenseth: with a wrench like that, he could really do some damage (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
So it didn't really take that long at all for Matt Kenseth to learn his new team.
And talk about emotion....
Kenseth certainly showed it here Sunday. Just three races into his new job driving for Toyota's Joe Gibbs, after 14 years with Ford's Jack Roush, Kenseth held off Kasey Kahne to win the Las Vegas 400 on a warm, sunny afternoon.
He was whooping and hollering after the win, by two-lengths. And Toyota executives were equally thrilled, not just with the breakout win by their newest driver but with the car maker's 50th Sprint Cup victory.
But that wasn't the only major story here Sunday. This race was the first major test for NASCAR's new 2013 stockers on a very fast mid-sized track.
And after the 2013s' problems at Daytona and Phoenix, and that controversial $25,000 fine on Denny Hamlin (ironically Kenseth's teammate) for his post-Phoenix critique, the heat was on NASCAR for this car to produce something, to tame the naysayers.
This 400 might not have been a classic bruiser race, and there were long yawning stretches.
But all things considered, it appears the 2013s passed the test. Or at least this test. And with precious little practice beforehand.
Teammates: Vegas winner Matt Kenseth (20) and Denny Hamlin, just fined a whopping $25,000 for saying the new 2013 stockers need some tweaking (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Yes, more tweaks may be needed, and certainly much more testing. And there was even serious talk before the race among teams about strong hints NASCAR officials were about to launch a major speed-cutting move, probably by limiting horsepower (in the same way the sanctioning body limits horsepower in Truck engines).
How NASCAR executives might have seen Sunday's 400 is still unclear.
Pressure continues to intensify among teams on Goodyear to somehow 'soften' its race tires. Where all that goes is likewise unclear.
NASCAR officials were quick to point out the pluses here:
-- This race had 31 green flag passes for the lead, a track record;
-- And this race had a huge number of green flag passes for position, 2,342 such passes, to last year's 1,301.
NASCAR said it has still not received an official appeals request from Hamlin (he has 10 days from last Thursday), so no appeals meeting has yet been set.
Matt Kenseth at the finish line....and what did happen to Kasey Kahne down the stretch? The crowd? Maybe a bit over 100,000. A nice crowd on a nice afternoon. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth had one of the four strongest cars, along with Kahne, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.
However Kenseth's tires were 31 laps older and more worn than Kahne's, and Kahne dominated most of the three-hour race. In the final miles even Kenseth was ready to concede the race to Kahne.
However Kahne couldn't quite pull off a pass for the lead. He got to the inside of Kenseth with two laps to go but couldn't make his car stick.
Kenseth surprised everyone last season with his decision to leave Roush, the man who had given him his start in Sprint Cup racing. But Kenseth, who turned 41 Sunday, is probably in the final five or so years of the prime of his career, and the offer to take the Home Depot-sponsored ride that Tony Stewart made so famous was just too much to pass up.
Still Kenseth realized he had to make a statement early on this season, to show he had not made a mistake in the move.
"I just feel real good about this group," Kenseth said, with a nod toward new crew chief Jason Ratcliffe. "This is just the beginning.
"I was real nervous all day. Kasey had the best car. I apologized to Jason with about 12 to go, thought we'd get beat.
"But we were in the right place in the right time. And that thing would just point and grunt up off the corner."
"We're going to win a lot of races," Ratcliffe said.
And happy birthday?
"I was kind of bummed about turning 29....." Kenseth said with a laugh.
Ready, aim, fire! Matt Kenseth hasn't lost his touch with the champagne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"We've had a tough couple of weeks," Gibbs said. "But we banded together. We had three good cars today. I was really proud of Jason."
Ratcliffe, though a veteran, is relatively new as a Cup crew chief.
Kahne and teammate Johnson showed the fastest cars early in the 267-lap race at the extremely fast 1-1/2-mile track. Then Kahne started to show his dominance. Then Busch charged into the fray, only to be hit with a pit road speeding penalty that forced him to play catch-up. Once Busch did catch up, he showed the strongest car on very short runs.
However a late round of pit stops, under caution, made it all a toss-up, when Kahne and Busch both had minor issues. And Kenseth, getting some gambling no-pit strategy from Ratcliffe, to gain track position, was at the head of the field.
"I had the car to beat, and got beat," Kahne said dejectedly.
"I had an unbelievable car. But we came out sixth the last stop....and we had two cycles on the left sides. And I figured Matt was going to be tough with 10 to go. You knew you'd have to fight to squeeze by him."
Kasey Kahne dogs Matt Kenseth late in the Vegas 400, but can't pull off the pass (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And, considering the NASCAR controversy over Hamlin's complaints about the new car, and that $25,000 fine, drivers were again pointedly laughing at their reluctance to discuss any issues about these new 2013s.
This is a very fast track, and this new car is very slick and fast too, faster than the models used the past several years.
Too fast? Well, drivers showed few problems. Some -- like Marcos Ambrose, for example -- showcased what appears to be new stability in these cars. There were no major crashes, only a few drivers scraping the wall. And no tire issues.
Kahne said "You could get a little bit loose and not have to call it quits."
Brad Keselowski, who seldom runs well here, did remarkably well down the stretch, tripping up Busch in the final miles to take third. It was his third top-five finish of the season.
"It was a faster pace than I've ever felt here....that thing would definitely rocket through the corners," Keselowski said.
"It was a grueling pace.
"My spotter would call out lap times, and I thought he was in the wrong second bracket."
"I was surprised by the pace," Kahne agreed. "I've never driven that hard for 267 laps here."
A beautiful blue-sky Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and kudos to GM Chris Powell for a nice, solid crowd (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)