Matt Kenseth held off Kasey Kahne over the final 26 laps of Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 to win his first race with Joe Gibbs Racing on his 41st birthday.
Kahne was the race’s strongest car, leading a race high 114 laps, but Kenseth found himself out front after he won the race off of pit road with 41 laps to go. Why? Well, because crew chief Jason Ratcliff had made the call to take no tires while most of the rest of the leaders took two.
On that caution, Kahne had to wait to leave his pit stall as Tony Stewart was entering his pit directly in front of Kahne’s. That meant that Kahne restarted in sixth, but his car was strong enough that he was able to work his way back up to second.
But much like it was with the previous car (ha! NASCAR, you can’t fine me!), clean air was a strong advocate for the car at the front, and when Kenseth jumped out on that final restart, he never lost the lead.
“I was real nervous, all day (Kahne) had the best car,” Kenseth said in victory lane. “I told (crew chief Jason Ratcliff) with about 12 to go, I’m like ‘I’m sorry man, we’re going to get beat.’”
“I was getting too tight and I was killing the right front. I just had to make sure I stayed in front of him and didn’t have quite the fastest car there at the end but we had it where it needed to be. Just great pit stops, great strategy and we were in the right place at the right time and took advantage of it today.”
Yes, that dreaded reference to track position. Kahne was able to get close a couple times, though. Over the closing laps, he would be able to close towards Kenseth on the backstretch off of turn two but wasn’t able to carry the run through turns 3 and 4 to catch Kenseth near the start finish line. His best opportunity came with 4 laps to go when Kenseth had to step out of the throttle because of lapped traffic, but while he closed the deficit to Kenseth, he was never able to drive up alongside him and attempt a pass.
When he emerged from his car, Kenseth was again optimistic about what’s in store at JGR, and after the first three races, why shouldn’t he be? He was one of the strongest contenders at Daytona before engine trouble and finished seventh last week at Phoenix. The 2004 Cup champ joked about how Sunday was his 29th birthday, but even though the first digit is actually a 4, it’s not hard to see that some of his best Cup Series days may be ahead of him.