Matt Kenseth took the lead just before halfway in Sunday’s UAW-Dodge 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and appeared to be on his way to his third victory at the 1.5-mile “Diamond in the Desert.” After leading four times for 70 laps, the handling on Kenseth’s No. 17 USG Sheetrock/DEWALT Ford Fusion swung slightly to the tight side as the shadows grew long over the track. Though Kenseth had faded to third, a late caution grouped the field for a restart on lap 262, just five laps shy of the finish. Kenseth stormed into second by the time the field entered turn one, but on the exit of turn two, the No. 24 car drifted up the track and into the left rear of Kenseth, sending the No. 17 spinning on the backstretch. Kenseth made a great save to keep his machine in tact, but had to pit for fresh tires under caution, losing his track position and ultimately relegating the No. 17 team to a 20th-place finish.
A sellout crowd in excess of 150,000, enjoyed a clear, cool and windy day as home-town favorite Kyle Busch led the field to the green flag at 1:48 p.m. Pacific. Kenseth driving the blue-and-red USG Sheetrock paint scheme for the first of three times in 2008, qualified 13th for Sunday’s event.
By lap four, Kenseth had cracked the top 10, but in the early going reported the car as being loose through the corners. To improve the handling of the No. 17 Ford, Crew Chief Chip Bolin called Kenseth to pit road under caution on lap 10 for adjustments. This put Kenseth, along with half of the field that pitted with him, on a slightly different cycle than the leaders. Kenseth returned to the track in 21st, but second among the cars that pitted.
After a long green flag run, Kenseth maneuvered up to 11th before the cycle of green-flag stops began on lap 37. Eight laps after the cycle of pit stops were complete the caution flag flew for debris and sent nearly everyone to pit road. The call from Bolin was two tires and fuel and after coming in ninth, Kenseth exited the pits in the seventh position.
On the ensuing lap-76 restart, the No. 17 Ford began to flex its muscle. Kenseth restarted seventh but quickly began to reel in the leaders. By the time the next caution flag flew on lap 109, Kenseth was running second, with the leader in his crosshairs. Reporting the car was the best it had been but a little loose towards the end of a run, Kenseth came to pit road, took on four tires, fuel and a minor adjustment, then returned in the second position.
It took Kenseth less than two laps to overcome the leader and set sail. After taking the lead on lap 116, Kenseth began to exert his dominance and it quickly became apparent that the only challengers would come in the form of two teammates, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Even as others tried to use pit strategy to get ahead of the No. 17 on the track, it was only a matter of time before Kenseth found his way back to the front.
The first warning sign that perhaps victory wasn’t in the cards came on lap 201, just 66 laps from the finish when Kenseth reported that the car was tightening up, especially in turns one and two which were now covered with shadows, therefore dropping the track temperature in those areas. By now, it was the Kenseth-Edwards show, and when the two came to pit road, with Edwards leading, for what was to be the final time of the evening on lap 215, Bolin called for a routine four-tires and fuel pit stop to hopefully beat Edwards back onto the racetrack. The plan worked as the “Killer Bees” responded with a 12.62-second pit stop to send Kenseth back out with the lead.
But, Kenseth could no longer hold Edwards off. The No. 17 Ford had become too tight and after losing the lead on lap 238, Kenseth was now in a position of trying to stay close and at the very least, hang on to a top-five finish.
A caution with only 10 laps remaining bunched the field for what was to be a six-lap dash to the checkers. Kenseth restarted third and got a great run on the outside of the No. 8 car for second. Having claimed the second position, Kenseth was preparing to challenge Edwards for one last chance at a victory, but as the field rumbled off of turn two, disaster struck.
That “disaster” was in the form of the No. 24 car, which drifted up the track and struck the left rear of Kenseth’s machine just at the exit of turn two. Kenseth’s Ford immediately spun sideways and nearly out of control in front of the field, but a quick-thinking Kenseth miraculously saved the car from hitting the inside wall and continued on with four flat tires, but no heavy damage.
Under caution, Kenseth was forced to pit road for four tires and few others pitted. With only two laps to go, Kenseth restarted 21st and after a run worthy of at least a top-three finish, came home with a disappointing 20th-place finish.
“They’ve kind of got a rule that they don’t really, to my knowledge, ever police,” Kenseth explained. “Of laying back more than a car length and Gordon is famous for laying back. He was laying back a lot, so I laid back so he wouldn’t pass me and then the 99 took off late because he saw everybody laying back. I got a run on the 88 and the 24 got a run on me and we kind of split him coming off two and then the 24 just wrecked me.”
You obviously had a car to beat, but you were hoping for tires.
“We were the same as the 99, but we just got too tight at the end and I couldn’t run with him at the end when we needed to. I just got too tight.”
How disappointing is this?
“It’s disappointing, but it all started back on the restart. Jeff is kind of famous for laying back and NASCAR has a rule that you can’t lay back more than a car length or you can be black-flagged, but it’s usually not enforced, so I saw him laying back. I knew he was going to get a run on me, so I laid back a little bit. Carl went late and that kind of started the chain and we were three-wide going into one. We came off two and I was up as high as I thought I could get and Jeff just came across. Whether it was on purpose or not, it just kind of wiped us out.”
Kobalt Tools 500
1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sunday, Mar. 9