When Matt Kenseth won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after only three races with his new team, it sent a clear message to all of NASCAR; the No. 20 team is back and laid the groundwork for the team being a force to be reckoned with for 2013.
Everyone was already watching to see how the veteran driver would perform with a new team, a new crew chief and a new car. While Matt has always been a talented driver with a championship and two Daytona 500 victories on his resume, change can be difficult, and it can often take some time to adapt.
It turned out that all the time that the No. 20 team needed was three races.
Matt and his new crew chief Jason Ratcliff formed a strong relationship early on. The team was dominant at the Daytona 500, running up front for most of the race as they led for a total of 86 laps before engine problems put them out of the competition. Two weeks later at Las Vegas, they had worked out the kinks and brought home the trophy.
Matt started his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota in the 18th position at Las Vegas after rain washed out qualifying, but wasted no time making his way into the top-10. He drove his way up to eighth by lap 20, and broke into the top five on lap 151. When a caution came out with just over 40 laps remaining, the Dollar General team made the call for fuel only allowing Matt to restart as the leader on lap 230. Matt led the field to the green flag on the restart, but another caution came out with 32 to go. The yellow flag did little to deter him and the Dollar General team, however, as he took the lead on the restart and held off a hard-charge from Kasey Kahne during the final 20 laps to get the win.
“I was really nervous,” commented Matt from Victory Lane that day. “All day Kasey Kahne had the best car, and I told Jason (Ratcliff) with about 12 (laps) to go — I apologized to him, ‘I’m sorry man, I’m beat.’ I was getting too tight and I was killing the right front tire. I just had to make sure I stayed in front of Kasey since we didn’t have quite the fastest car at the end, but we had it where it needed to be. We had great pit stops and great pit strategy. We were in the right place at the right time and we took advantage of it.”
“We Came. We Saw. We Conquered.” @bubbawallace
It was history in the making as Darrell Wallace Jr. crossed the finish line at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway with tears in his eyes. The 20-year-old driver’s first-place finish was not only a personal victory, but also a victory for the whole sport. Darrell became the second African American driver to win a NASCAR National Series race in the history of the sport.
“I’m speechless right now,” Darrell said. “I couldn’t even hold it together coming off (turn) four with the checkered. I still can’t.”
Darrell dominated the Saturday evening race at Martinsville leading 96 laps and winning a final restart with five laps to go to bring home the checkered flag. It was his 19th start in his rookie season as a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) driver for Kyle Busch Motorsports, and his first win in a NASCAR National Series.
A win was certainly pending for the young driver, but had kept eluding him. Darrell was confident, however, as he went into the weekend race at Martinsville. He had come close to winning several times before, but costly wrecks had ruined those opportunities. At Martinsville, he was not going to try to win. He knew he was going to win before the green flag dropped.
“I had so much confidence coming into this race,” Darrell said. “I told my guys that I did, and I told everybody that asked if I was going to win I said, ‘Hell yeah’ every time. So, it was no maybe we’re going to try, this one was for sure and we capitalized.”
Impeccable driving and a lightning-fast pit crew sent Kyle Busch and his No. 18 Interstate Batteries team to victory lane in a thrilling first-time hometown triumph for Dallas-based Interstate Batteries chairman Norm Miller. Busch dominated Interstate Battery’s backyard track in Fort Worth with his win at the NRA 500 Sprint Cup race in April.
“For Interstate Batteries and Norm Miller to be in victory lane in Texas, there’s nothing better than putting them right here,” said Busch. “We’ve been trying for a long time and fortunately we finally got it done.”
More than 20 years ago, Miller agreed to a risky partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing, a time when Joe Gibbs said all he had was a dream—no manufacturers, no building, not even a driver.
But Miller saw promise in the dream and Interstate Batteries became a founding, full-time sponsor of JGR. Since then, they have been a huge part of JGR history and culture said Todd Meredith, vice president of operations for JGR. Miller is not just a sponsor, he is “a huge friend to all of us,” said Meredith.
“It means so much to have a guy like that on your side,” Busch said.
And it meant a lot for Miller and Interstate Batteries to have a driver like Busch bring them to victory lane for the first time at their home track. It was a momentous and record-setting weekend for Busch, too. Breaking the track qualifying record at 27.509 seconds, 196.299 mph, Busch took the pole position in his 300th start. It was his 26th career Cup win and his first at the 1.5-mile Texas track. He became the first driver to sweep the weekend and have wins in all three series at Texas. Busch also set a NASCAR record in winning both races in the same weekend for the seventh time of his career.
Salvage. Redemption. Struggle. Semblance of hope. Solace of Victory. Remnants of pride and confidence. Finally.
These words peppered news headlines following the last race of the 2013 Sprint Cup season in describing the experience and outcome for driver Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx team. It had been a tough season for Hamlin and his team, but they couldn’t have asked for a better antidote than the sweetness of Homestead’s victory lane.
“As bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish,” said Hamlin. “It gets your spirits down, but then to come here and back it up with a win is special.”
In just the fifth race of the season at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Hamlin collided with former teammate Joey Logano and suffered a fractured back that took him out for another four and a half races. The rest of the season looked bleak for Hamlin as he was doled out a mean helping of bad luck, acquiring eight DNFs and sinking to 23rd in points ranking.
“When you’ve had a year like we’ve had, you just wonder ‘Hey, how can I get back to the top five,” Hamlin said. “And when will I ever win a race again?”
With no victories in over a year, this would be the first winless season for Hamlin in his eight-year career at NASCAR’s highest level. Despite what he called the “small victories” he hit with just a few weeks to go, Hamlin was counting down the laps for the disheartening season to come to an end.
But something clicked on that Sunday in Miami.