Matt Kenseth doesn’t claim Las Vegas Motor Speedway as his home track, but maybe he should.
He is back as the defending champion of the Sprint Cup race at the 1½-mile oval, adding to his victories in 2003 and 2004 at the track.
Kenseth also has finished in the top 10 seven times and the top five in six races in 14 career starts, finding ways to drive well before and after LVMS was reconfigured in the summer of 2006.
His 513 laps led in Cup events in Las Vegas is the most of any driver.
“I think it helps any time you’ve had success because you have a better feel for it and you can get a little better information a little quicker,” Kenseth said.
He cautioned, however, about relying too much on past success, saying each year presents a unique set of challenges.
Kenseth’s challenge now is to defend his title. He took his No. 20 Toyota on the track Thursday to test for Sunday’s Kobalt 400, and qualifying takes place today.
Last year’s Las Vegas race was particularly meaningful, coming on Kenseth’s 41st birthday. He became just the third driver to win a Cup race on the same day he blew out candles, joining Las Vegan Kyle Busch in 2009 and Cale Yarborough, who did it twice.
But ask Kenseth how he celebrated, and he struggles to answer, saying he “can hardly remember last week.”
The celebration, if there was one one, might not have been memorable, but the victory was important for many reasons.
Kenseth was barely into his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing after driving for Jack Roush since 1999. It was with RCR that Kenseth won the 2003 Cup title.
Being the new driver at JGR brought its share of pressure, and Kenseth became misty when discussing the move at last year’s news conference after his victory. That win not only relieved any pressure he put on himself, but also gave he and his team a boost.
Kenseth wound up posting a career-best seven victories, finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in the standings.
“It definitely was a confidence booster,” Kenseth said. “Being new out here and being somewhere else in my career, it was a big goal of mine to get out and perform, not only to win but to win early.”
He again looks to record his first victory of the season in Las Vegas. He finished sixth at Daytona on Feb. 23 and 12th Sunday at Phoenix.
“I’m anticipating that things are going to get exponentially better as we head to Las Vegas this weekend because I feel that we were able to learn so much last week at Phoenix in regards to the new rules package, as well as the new qualifying format,” crew chief Jason Ratcliff said.
A Kenseth victory would put him in great position to again make the Chase for the Cup. NASCAR changed its playoff format this season, placing a much greater emphasis on victories as a way to make the field.
His one Cup title was such a runaway that the final races of the 2013 season were as meaningful as a Philadelphia 76ers game this spring. NASCAR wanted to instill some drama and created the 10-race format to determine a winner.
But even that fell below expectations, what with Johnson winning six times in the past eight seasons, and now the winner won’t be decided until the season finale at Homestead-Miami on Nov. 16.
“I really honestly haven’t put a lot of thought into the Chase yet,” Kenseth said. “It’s just so far away.”
Maybe so, but it gets a lot closer with a victory Sunday.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter @markanderson65.