Driver gets relief from self-imposed pressure after move to JGR
Related: Kobalt Tools 400 results
LAS VEGAS -- NASCAR’s ultimate straight man Matt Kenseth is well known among his friends and fellow competitors -- and even the NASCAR media corps -- for his dry wit and great sense of humor.
He doesn’t get flustered, doesn’t get overly excited. His emotional spectrum is normally the middle of the road.
So listening to Kenseth's raised voice on the team radio as he took the checkered flag in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and watching him celebrate in Victory Lane, it was obvious that this particular win was an especially emotional moment.
And it had little do with it being his 41st birthday.
"I'm pretty fired up to win with these guys," said Kenseth of his first victory in his first season driving Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas after spending his entire previous 13-year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career driving Roush Fenway Racing Fords.
"You know, I was pretty comfortable where I was at," he explained, pausing to chose the right words. "We had cars that could win races (at Roush). We had an organization that could win races. Although I knew -- and I still know -- it's not really that much of a risk and I'm 100 percent sure it was the right thing and all that, still there's some pressure, there's some unknowns (about switching teams).
"To come over there (to Gibbs) and get in that car, I know they're expecting me to perform and do my job. Before this year, I can't remember the last time I've ever been nervous at all inside of a race car. … You want to meet their expectations or exceed them and you want to go do your job to the best of your ability."
But no one discounted the initial challenges. Kenseth not only had a new boss, but a new car make, pit crew, spotter, sponsor and crew chief.
Kenseth brought a title and 24 wins with him to Gibbs, but because of the massive re-set to his surroundings, his learning curve was expected to be steep, and the team was prepared to balance expectation with patience.
"I knew this day would come, but to do it just in our third race is really special obviously," said Kenseth's crew chief Jason Ratcliff. "The hard work that these guys have put in over the winter, we've just got a great group here and we've got Matt and we're going to win a lot of races, I think. He'll probably get mad at me for saying that because he doesn't like that.
"But … I knew that we would get into Victory Lane at some point, and to do it this early in the season is great and I'm looking forward to the rest of the season."
If Kenseth was worried about carrying his weight among the other heavyweights on his team, this win only three races into the season should help assuage his concerns.
He's the first JGR driver to win in 2013 and is one of only five drivers in the Sprint Cup Series with two top 10s already. His win Sunday moved him up 11 positions in the Sprint Cup Series championship standings to seventh place. He trails fourth-place Hamlin by nine points and leads 17th-place Busch by 21 points.
Engine worries in the opening two races of the season troubled the team, so perhaps it explains the wide smile and pep in the step for Toyota boss Lee White after joining Kenseth in Victory Lane on Sunday.
"I think, lots of times a victory -- the thrill of it -- depends on … what happens leading up to it," said team owner and namesake Joe Gibbs. "We've had a tough couple weeks as everybody knows so I really appreciate our partner Toyota.
"In tough times, everybody kind of bands together around our place and we start fighting and we worked our way out of some tough times. Obviously, Matt has just been special. He came over, I think he brings a lot and Denny and Kyle both really respect him.
"We've got three guys that really can get after it and drive a race car."
For Kenseth, it was a perfect way to settle in and exhale.
"I felt a lot of pressure that I put on myself to come in here and perform," Kenseth said. "We're only three weeks in, but man, all three races we had a car where if everything went right we could have won. I'm not a huge 'goal' person, but my goal was to win and to win early. I'm glad we got a win, but it's still only week three. I feel like this is the beginning. … It feels really great to get the win, and hopefully that'll keep some momentum going for our team."
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