With Kasey Kahne in his rear-view mirror and closing fast with 12 laps to go, Matt Kenseth apologized to his crew chief.
Kenseth didn’t think he would hold off Kahne, knowing the gamble taken not to get fresh tires might come back to haunt the Joe Gibbs Racing team.
But Kenseth ran hard, taking his No. 20 Toyota well below the apron in Turn 1 several times and around a series of lapped cars to give himself one heck of a 41st birthday gift Sunday — the Kobalt Tools 400 trophy.
It was Kenseth’s third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He also won in 2003 and 2004.
Kenseth also became the first Cup series driver to win on his birthday since Las Vegan Kyle Busch in 2009. The only other driver to win on his birthday was Cale Yarborough, who did it twice.
Kenseth celebrated by yelling inside the car, unusual for the even-keeled competitor. During the postrace news conference, his eyes became misty and he acknowledged the self-imposed pressure he felt to win after moving last year to Gibbs from Roush Fenway Racing.
“Nobody has put any pressure on me except myself, but I also know that Coach (Gibbs) hired me to come in there and climb in that car and win races,” Kenseth said. “So you certainly want to do that, and you don’t want to disappoint people. I’m glad we got a win, but it’s only Week 3.”
The Gibbs team used some daring strategy to send Kenseth first across the finish line. With most teams changing two tires with 41 laps left, Kenseth’s opted to use the pit stop only to refuel.
Track position has been especially important early this season, and crew chief Jason Ratcliff wanted to get Kenseth back on the 1½-mile tri-oval as quickly as he could. It was a risky strategy because the race set a track record with 2,342 green-flag passes, and Kenseth ran the risk of getting beat late on worn tires.
“We’re going to pick up about a little over a second if we don’t take tires,” Ratcliff said.
“And last week, we had a little trouble on pit road, and we felt like we would have had a shot to win that race if we could have got off pit road where we came in, and we weren’t going to let that happen again today.”
Kenseth finished seventh at Phoenix last week. He was 37th in the opener at Daytona after engine trouble took him off the lead.
In this race, the key moment came down to a restart with 26 laps remaining. Kenseth surged in front, making it a two-man race with Kahne, who had a strong Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet, leading a race-high 114 laps.
Kahne appeared set to pass Kenseth a few times, but Kenseth did everything to stay in ahead.
With 12 laps remaining, Kenseth told Ratcliff he was sorry about not being able to win the race.
“I thought we were going to lose it,” Kenseth said. “I was getting tight, and especially as we caught them lapped. I didn’t think I was going to hold (Kahne) off. It’s good that we had all this great power from (Toyota Racing Development) — I don’t think we could have held him off.”
Kahne liked his chances running with two fresh tires behind a car without any.
“I really thought I was” going to win, Kahne said. “I felt really confident, that when I got him I’d be able to do that again like I had raced Kyle and Jimmie (Johnson) earlier in the race. And when I got to Matt, I couldn’t do it.”
Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski, driving the Penske Racing No. 2 Ford, finished behind Kahne in third.
Busch, in his Gibbs No. 18 Toyota, took fourth. His brother, Kurt, finished 20th in his Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Chevy.
Defending race champion Tony Stewart was 11th in his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Chevy; Johnson, a five-time series champ, was sixth in his Hendrick No. 48 Chevy; Dale Earnhardt Jr. placed seventh in his Hendrick No. 88 Chevy; and Danica Patrick took 33rd in her Stewart-Haas No. 10 Chevy.
All were chasing Kenseth, the 2003 series champion who again showed how to get it done in Las Vegas.
He spent the previous 14 years at Roush, and Kenseth went into this season wanting to show Gibbs it made the right decision to bring him aboard.
“Before this year, I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever been nervous at all inside a racecar, and every week it gets a little bit better,” Kenseth said.
“I’m pretty fired up to win with these guys. I hope there’s a lot more in front of us.”
NASCAR and the speedway do not announce attendance, but the crowd was estimated to be about 120,000.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.