Matt Kenseth was cutting his steak, patiently waiting for the media interview to end before eating so as not to be rude to the visitor.
Maybe he will take a bite of birthday cake today, but what would taste even better is champagne.
Kenseth, who turns 41, will try to win his third NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas and first since 2004, the second of his back-to-back titles.
He enters the Kobalt Tools 400 267-lap race, which begins at noon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with what has shown to be a strong No. 20 Toyota through the first two races.
Kenseth appeared to be in great shape to retain his Daytona 500 title, leading a race-high 86 laps, before engine failure ended his day prematurely, putting him 37th. He bounced back a week later with a seventh-place finish at Phoenix.
“I feel really good about what we did at Daytona and Phoenix,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in this group. If everything had gone our way and all the stars had been aligned, I think we had cars capable of winning a race.”
Though Kenseth was happy with how the car performed the first two weeks, he wasn’t as pleased with the practice sessions in Las Vegas.
At least not with most sessions. He recorded the fastest speed Thursday morning, at 187.396 mph, but dropped to 28th that afternoon. On Saturday, Kenseth was 19th fastest in the first practice and 11th in the final one.
What Kenseth wasn’t able to do was qualify, which was wiped out Friday by rain. He will start 18th today because of ownership points from last season.
“I think we would’ve qualified much better than 18th, so that’s always a little bit frustrating,” he said. “But you worry about the things you can control, and you certainly can’t control the weather.”
Track position always is important, but it has been especially critical this season, so the less-than-ideal starting spot doesn’t help. Kenseth, though, disputed how much it hurts, saying with a three-hour race, “it’s hard to use starting position as an excuse for where you finish.”
This season represents a major life change for Kenseth, who is in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing after 14 years at Roush Fenway Racing. Kenseth delivered Roush the 2003 series title.
The move was long in the works, beginning last spring when Kenseth knew he wanted to make the switch.
He hasn’t gone into detail regarding why he took his talents to Gibbs, but Kenseth’s contract was ending, and Roush had a hotshot in two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. it wanted to promote to Sprint Cup.
The writing was on the garage wall.
So Kenseth went to Gibbs, becoming teammates with Las Vegas native Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
“I feel this is a great opportunity,” Kenseth said. “It’s a great group of guys, a great organization. I feel like it’s my best opportunity to win races and hopefully to try to win a championship.”
Maybe his first victory for Gibbs will occur today on Kenseth’s birthday.
Busch was the last person to win on his birthday, on May 2, 2009, at Richmond. The only other person to pull off that feat was Cale Yarborough, who did it twice.
Steak and birthday cake taste good.
Champagne, especially after a victory, tastes even better.
“It’s always fun to go to places that you’ve had success at in the past,” said Kenseth, who has won twice at Las Vegas and in 2011 sat on the pole. “I don’t think it really matters with this new (Generation-6) car. Everything’s completely different, a new team and all that stuff, so I don’t think history will have that much to do with tomorrow.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.