Matt Kenseth didn’t have the fastest car, but he used shrewd pit strategy to hold off Kasey Kahne and win Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
It was Kenseth’s first victory with Joe Gibbs Racing, his new team, and the first for Toyota this season. All three manufacturers have each won one race so far this season. Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, now has 25 race victories in 475 career starts.
Kahne had the dominant car, leading 112 laps, but had to settle for second place, because Kenseth took no tires on the final pit stop. Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski passed Kyle Busch for third with seven laps to go, while Carl Edwards finished fifth, ahead of Jimmie Johnson.
Keselowski started from the pole, but it was Kahne who flashed early speed, going to the point on Lap 11.
Busch was fast, too, and briefly led when Kahne pitted under green. Unfortunately, when it was his turn to pit near the 50-lap mark, Busch was hit with a pit road speeding penalty.
On Lap 76, Kahne’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson took his first lead of the day, running down Kahne for the top spot.
While Johnson kept the lead at the halfway mark of the 267-lap race, Kahne returned the favor on Lap 138, reassuming the top spot in the race.
Marcos Ambrose spun to bring out a caution on Lap 161, and on the restart, Busch made a banzai dive to go three-wide on the bottom and move back out front. Busch nearly went into the grass but made the pass stick, pulling away in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Busch couldn’t hold the margin, though, as his car was best on fresh rubber but faded as the run went on.
On Lap 181, it was Kahne’s turn to take control, as he went under Busch on the backstretch and into the lead.
The battle continued after Bobby Labonte’s spin on Lap 195. When the green came out after another round of pit stops, Busch moved ahead of Kahne and went to the top of the board.
Once again, though, Kahne’s car came to him during the run, and on Lap 210, the Hendrick Chevrolet drove past Busch and into the lead. Ten laps later, it was Johnson into second, as Busch began to fade.
Travis Kvapil blew the engine in his Toyota on Lap 225, bringing out a caution and run down pit road. Matt Kenseth took gas only and emerged as the leader, followed by Keselowski, who didn’t take tires, either. Johnson was next, then Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kahne and Kyle Busch.
Kahne got balked on pit road by Tony Stewart during his stop, which resulted cost him five positions, while Busch’s crew was slow on the right-rear tire.
On the restart, Ryan Newman missed a shift, resulting in engine failure and another caution on Lap 237.
This time, Kahne moved into second after the restart and set off after Kenseth. The two waged a furious battle in the closing stages, with Kenseth getting it done in the end.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.