Matt Kenseth's Birthday Bash In Vegas
Sprint Cup: Ratcliff Under The Radar No Longer
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.
Sam Hornish Jr. Back In Victory Lane
Nationwide: Hornish Can Celebrate
This was the first time Sam Hornish Jr. had ever felt like fully celebrating after a NASCAR race. After his only other Nationwide win, at Phoenix in 2011, "I didn't feel like celebrating at that time because of the loss of Dan [Wheldon]," Hornish told reporters at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after winning Saturday's Sam's Town 300.
Wheldon had been killed weeks earlier in an Indy car race, and for Hornish, who'd won the 2006 Indianapolis 500 and three IndyCar season championships before a rocky switch to NASCAR, "there were a lot of questions in my mind as far as what I should be doing with the rest of my life," he said Saturday.
Hornish had lost his Cup ride with Roger Penske in 2010 after three winless seasons, then been brought back last year to sub for AJ Allmendinger, who was suspended for violation of NASCAR's substance abuse policy. But at season's end, Hornish was still winless in Cup, and Penske replaced him with Joey Logano.
"When it was announced that I wasn't going to be in the 22 Cup car, that was another hit," Hornish said, meaning to his already fragile ego.
But for this season, Penske paired him with Greg Erwin, a crew chief who'd had his own hard knocks. In only their third race together, Erwin gave Hornish a car that -- well -- "You dream about having cars like this," Hornish said.
Hornish dominated throughout, leading 114 of the 200 laps and then holding off Kyle Busch on two restarts in the final 15 laps.
"I know how everybody else felt last week," said Busch, who had dominated the previous race, at Phoenix. This time, "There at the end, it felt like we were getting beat everywhere -- just all the way around the racetrack."
"I think," said Hornish, "I used more energy celebrating than I did actually driving the car today."
That said a lot about the car -- but also about just how much Hornish needed a full, clean celebration in NASCAR.
Camping World: Martinsville Next
Kenseth: The Cool Factor
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.
"Please, please, please, tell me how many laps to go," Kenseth yelled at his spotter with eight laps remaining and Kahne on his bumper.