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LAS VEGAS -- Matt Kenseth is not known as the world's most exciting or emotional guy. Calm, cool, collected, calculating? Yes. Exciting and emotional? Not really.
Meet the new Kenseth, the birthday boy who was screaming on the final laps, fighting back tears at the end, and smiling from ear-to-ear in Victory Lane.
Kenseth, who turned 41 on Sunday, held off Kasey Kahne in a dramatic fight to the finish for the final 25 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Kahne had the fastest car all day and Kenseth knew it, but Kenseth was in a frenzy to stay in front.
|Matt Kenseth celebrated a birthday -- and a Sprint Cup victory for Joe Gibbs Racing -- Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.|
"Please, please, please, tell me how many laps to go," Kenseth yelled at his spotter with eight laps remaining and Kahne on his bumper.
With six laps left, Kenseth knew lapped traffic was about to get in his way and could allow Kahne to get by him.
"Tell those guys to get out of the way!" Kenseth screamed. "Get 'em down."
Two laps to go: "Out of the way! Down, down, down," Kenseth frantically pleaded.
The lapped cars gave way and Kenseth seized the moment, earning his 25th Sprint Cup victory, but his first in the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
And his joy was anything but invisible at the end. A man who once was portrayed in a TV commercial as a robot displayed heartfelt excitement and emotion after the checkered flag.
"Thank you, thank you, Lord," Kenseth said on his radio, his voice cracking. "I'm just so thankful to be here."
Kenseth made the biggest decision of his career last season when he decided to leave Roush Fenway Racing (his home for all 13 years of his Cup career) and sign with Gibbs for 2013.
Ten years removed from his only Cup championship, Kenseth felt he needed a fresh start if he was going to win another title before his career ended.
It was a risk, taking over a car that failed to finish in the top 15 in the four previous seasons with Joey Logano as the driver. But Kenseth was convinced this move would work.
"I just knew it," he said after Sunday's victory. "I put a lot pressure on myself to come over here and perform. I felt really good about this group of guys, and [crew chief] Jason Ratcliff is the man. I feel this is just the beginning."
If so, the rest of the Cup field better watch out. Kenseth did what he does best Sunday, bringing back memories of the legendary David Pearson.
Like the Silver Fox, Kenseth slyly hung back most of the race, strategically got to the front near the end and outraced everyone when it mattered.
When he knew the victory was possible, his emotions surfaced, something he usually hides and keeps inside. Not this time.
"I was really nervous," Kenseth said. "Kasey had the best car all day. With about 12 laps to go [and Kahne closing in], I told Jason, 'I'm sorry man. We'll get beat. I'm killing the right front [tire].'"
It was a rare overreaction by the wise man from Wisconsin.
"I didn't have the fastest car, but I had it where it needed to be," Kenseth said. "I was able to hold on."
Kahne had zoomed past the leader several times Sunday (yes, drivers could make passes for the lead in the Gen-6 on a 1.5-mile oval), so it seemed only a matter of time until he caught Kenseth and did it again to win it.
"I really thought I would," Kahne said. "I felt confident when I got to him I would get by, as I did with Jimmie [Johnson] and Kyle [Busch] earlier in the race.
"But when I got close to Matt, he would cut across me and get me loose. Matt did everything right. I knew he was not the guy you want to try to catch with 10 laps to go."
And Kenseth did it with old tires after Ratcliff elected to go for track position over new tires on the last stop. Ratcliff left it in Kenseth's hands. Good call. It was a masterful effort by one of the sport's most consistent racers.
Sunday also was good racing at the end for the Gen-6, the new car that has come under early scrutiny. Denny Hamlin was fined $25,000 by NASCAR for his critical comments last week.
NASCAR released statistics after Sunday's race showing there were more passes than ever before at Las Vegas. Officially, there were 31 green-flag passes for the lead, but that's misleading because it includes passes within the same lap.
Even so, drivers could make passes up front at times. And the drivers had mostly positive opinions of the car Sunday.
When Kahne and third-place finisher Brad Keselowski were asked about it, Keselowski looked at Kahne and said: "Go ahead, Kasey. You take that."
A little inside joke by the defending Cup champ about not wanting to anger the comment police at NASCAR. But Kahne was happy to answer.
"I had a lot of fun driving the car today and thought it was a heck of race," Kahne said. "I could race underneath other cars and do things I couldn't do here in the past. I had battles for the lead five or six times. I felt I could pass anywhere."
Until the end.
Kenseth would not be denied, even if it meant he had to scream, shout and let his emotional side show like never before. A lot of things ran through his mind when a victory was near.
"I just really wanted to win for these guys," Kenseth said. "I was fired up. Even though I was 100 percent sure I did the right thing coming [to JGR], there were a lot of unknowns. I came here because I feel I still have championships to [win]. I'm just really happy about this.''
And for one of the few times in his career, it showed.