Early season success often indicates how a driver will fare throughout the year. Following two strong performances in Daytona and Atlanta that ended up unraveling,Matt Kenseth is hoping to rebound at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In Atlanta, the first race with the 2016 rules package, he shined early. However, after receiving a fueling violation penalty, then falling two laps off the pace after being black flagged, the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota team was unable to recover.
While the violation took Kenseth out of contention, it didn’t take away from the crew’s understanding of the new package. They excelled in the speed and performance departments during practice and showed strength early in the race. This makes them a significant threat moving forward as they look to use the new package to their advantage.
Despite both tracks measuring 1.5 miles, Atlanta and Las Vegas are vastly different. That’s why success last weekend won’t directly translate to the Kobalt 400. However, this race will provide a better idea of what to expect out of the new aerodynamic rules this season.
“I think that this weekend at Las Vegas will be a better indication for this rules package because Las Vegas has a lot of grip, it’s really fast, and there’s always really bad aerodynamic effects as you get further back in the pack,” Kenseth said.
Compared to Atlanta’s older surface that allows the use of multiple lanes but forced slower speeds to conserve tires, the increased speeds in Las Vegas will allow aerodynamics to play a larger role.
The style of racing in Las Vegas reflects many of the intermediate tracks on the schedule as most have relatively new asphalt surfaces. This makes it difficult to use multiple racing lanes and run side-by-side. These are issues the new package aims to improve, and so far it has at three speedways with seasoned surfaces.
“The reason that you have a tough time passing at Vegas is because of the aero, so I just think that this weekend will be a good base for looking at this new package,” Kenseth said.
If the level of passing increases on Sunday, it will be a good indicator of what’s ahead in 2016. However, if aerodynamics make it difficult to pass and race side-by-side, then additional changes will be needed to cultivate the same style of competition drivers praised following Atlanta.
Las Vegas also presents the challenge of navigating the bumps in Turns 1 and 2.
“The toughest aspect of Las Vegas is getting the cars to drive through the bumps successfully getting into Turn 1, and that’s always been a focus there since they paved the track,” Kenseth said. “The goal is to get our DEWALT Camry to go through there better than everyone else, and that can give us a big advantage if we can get our car right in that section. A lot of people will choose to run above them or below them, but in my opinion, in order to be successful in the race and to be able to pass, you need to be able to drive well through those bumps on entry.”
Tuning in the car to perform strongly with the new package and being able to navigate the bumps will likely place Kenseth up front for the third consecutive weekend. Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has earned three top-10 finishes in Las Vegas, including one victory in 2013.
An exceptional performance this weekend would give Kenseth a chance to put his recent near misses in the rearview mirror and emerge as a major threat this season. The odds are in his favor to rebound, dominate, and celebrate on Sunday.