By David Morgan, Associate Editor
As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series packs up and heads west to start the West Coast Swing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, we’ll take a step back in time for today’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater” to the 2006 UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 and the closest finish to ever occur at the 1.5-mile track.
In the final race on the original configuration of the track, it looked to be another Roush-Fenway kind of day as Greg Biffle led the field to green from the pole and a host of his Roush teammates became major players on the day.
The early portion of the race saw Mark Martin and Tony Stewart assert themselves into the lead, with Stewart leading 52 laps and Martin taking 57 laps out in front of the field. However, as the race passed the halfway point, the third Roush-Fenway driver in the stable, Matt Kenseth, made his way to the lead.
From his first stint in the lead at lap 101, Kenseth would be a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the day, leading 146 laps, besting his race-high 123 laps led in the 2004 event. However, as Kenseth continued to click off laps out front, a new contender emerged in Jimmie Johnson, who had won the race the previous year.
With three laps remaining, Kenseth’s near certain win was in jeopardy after Denny Hamlin and Kenny Wallace made contact, shearing off the left-rear quarter panel of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet and bringing out the caution for debris. The caution pushed the race into overtime, giving Johnson one final shot at eclipsing Kenseth for the win.
As this was back in the era before double-file restarts, Johnson lined up behind Kenseth on the restart and stayed tucked in behind Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford for the first lap and a half of the green-white-checkered finish and waited to make his move. When both cars stormed into Turn 3 and 4, Johnson took the opportunity to move up to the high line and was able to power around Kenseth and beat him back to the finish line by .045 seconds, the closest finish ever at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The win was the second in a row for Johnson at Las Vegas and his second of the season, both of which came without Chad Knaus on top of the pit box after being penalized at Daytona to start the season.
“That was great racing,” said Johnson. “I had so much fun. I’ve had a lot of fun racing with Matt over the years, but I knew if I could get to his outside coming to the start finish line – I’ve won one that way and lost one that way, so I knew that I could do it again.
“I’m out of breath, I was screaming for a lap going backwards, hooting and hollering inside the race car, but I am so happy, so proud of this race team. So thankful for Lowe’s and their support. This Chevrolet Monte Carlo, we’re really learning it, and having a good time in the process.”
While Kenseth admitted that he did all he could to hold off Johnson at the end, he still showed his displeasure with finishing second in a dominant race car.
“Nobody likes to run second,” Kenseth said. “We led all day and I thought we had the best car. At the end of that run, we just started slowing up and Jimmie started catching me and it felt like it was laying down on me for some reason. And then the green-white-checkereds are tough, I did everything I could, if I tried any harder, I was probably going to wreck and wreck him too. I did everything I could, I just got beat.
“I feel bad because I feel like I let the guys down because they had pit stops second to none like always and got me in a position to win and I couldn’t win it for them. It’s still a big confidence builder, the DeWalt team has run great all three weeks, the No. 17 is running good and they’ve got a great attitude and we’re having a lot of fun so far this year.”