Updated: March 11, 2013, 2:23 PM ET

Matt Kenseth's Birthday Bash In Vegas

Sprint Cup: Ratcliff Under The Radar No Longer

By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Only the early returns are in, only one win Sunday at Las Vegas, but already a new driver-crew chief tandem is emerging to challenge the perfectly paired likes of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, and Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe.

Just how well the newly joined Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing would do this year was the talk of NASCAR in the offseason. The element left out of the discussion -- to be omitted no more after Sunday -- was Jason Ratcliff.

The driver who was embarrassed about turning 41 on Sunday, and the crew chief who is just now entering the limelight at age 45, were so in-sync about their winning gamble on their final pit stop that they didn't even need to verbalize their communication much.

"He said, 'Man, just keep me up front,'" Ratcliff told reporters at the track. "I said, 'OK, game on.'"

With that, Ratcliff kept his tire changers behind the wall for a fuel-only stop as other teams changed at least two tires all around them. That got Kenseth out of the pits first, with 37 laps to go.

You get a crew chief making a call that cool, and a driver who can execute the tall order of holding off the competition on worn tires, and this might just be what Kenseth hopes it is: "Just the beginning," he said.

Beginning his 14th Cup season with the radical move from his 13-year home, Roush Fenway Racing, to Gibbs, "You're hoping, dreaming," Kenseth said, "to work with somebody who doesn't only prepare cars to win races, but you want to call races to win races, and do pit stops to win races and adjust cars to win races and be aggressive."

Given the crucial track position, Kenseth made the worn tires work, screaming at his spotter along the way to get lapped cars clear of his onslaught, and holding off the relentless charge of Kasey Kahne at the end.

Even the Gibbs team website likens Ratcliff to "the AAA baseball player finally getting called up to the big leagues."

He got the call last year, but for an essentially lame-duck effort, running the No. 20 team with Joey Logano as driver. The previous three seasons, Ratcliff directed JGR's No. 18 Nationwide team to 30 wins, a season championship for Kyle Busch in 2009, and two consecutive owner points championships in '09 and '10.

"I'm really happy … for Jason," team owner Joe Gibbs said Sunday. "If you think about it, he's been with us quite a while."

A long while. With a lot of Triple-A seasoning at making aggressive calls for the likes of Busch, Logano and Denny Hamlin -- young drivers all, when Ratcliff worked with them.

And now Ratcliff has a savvy veteran, Kenseth. And Kenseth has a savvy veteran whose calls, bent on winning races, are just now arriving in the big leagues.

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