Although we're now three weeks into the 2013 Sprint Cup season, Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway marked the first time that the new Gen-Six car bodies made it to the track in a racing situation. And after complaints in the past two weeks over the quality of racing, things took a turn for the better in Sin City.
For the first time, passes for the lead didn't seem impossible. Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth all managed to spend significant time up front, while hometown favorite Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski kept things interesting as well. In the end, Kenseth brought home his 25th career Sprint Cup victory, his first with Joe Gibbs Racing.
So who were some of this week's other big winners, and which drivers would rather forget about their trip to Vegas?
Sometimes it takes new driver-team combinations months, even years, to click. It's taken Kenseth, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and Joe Gibbs Racing a grand total of three races.
After leading the most laps in the Daytona 500 before suffering an engine failure, the 2003 champion held off a hard-charging Kasey Kahne on old tires, becoming only the third driver in Sprint Cup history to win a race on his birthday. Kenseth is already working together with Ratcliff as well as he has with any crew chief since Robbie Reiser.
Finishing second at Las Vegas after a disappointing Daytona 500 and subpar run at Phoenix should be a boon for Kahne, who has climbed to 14th in points with the finish. But after leading a race-high 114 laps, he can't be too happy to come home in second.
After all, Kahne spent consistent chunks of time up front all race long, while Kenseth didn't lead consistently until the final stint. Plus, Kahne lost the race on his final pit stop after failing to accelerate immediately after he was cleared to go, forcing him to restart fourth and make up spots.
Kyle Busch overcame an early speeding penalty and the threat of falling a lap down to lead 27 laps and finish a solid fourth on Sunday. The highlight of his race was a daring restart from third place in which he found his way around both of the lead cars, ducking to the inside line of the track to make the pass.
It helped him jump from 33rd in points to 17th, now only 16 points outside of the top 10.
But Jeff Gordon struggled all day and could only muster a 25th-place run, a lap down. Like many other drivers, he couldn't find grip early in the race, sliding down the running order and eventually falling a lap down.
Gordon now ranks 13th in points, nine points out of the top 10.
After two weeks of significant issues, especially within the Joe Gibbs camp, Toyota redeemed itself by winning its first race of the season and adding fourth- and eighth-place finishes on Sunday.
Besides Kenseth and Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. added his first top-10 of the season, while Denny Hamlin (fourth) and Mark Martin (sixth) are both within 34 points of championship leader Jimmie Johnson.
So much for landing the second starting position through last year's owners' points. Clint Bowyer had been confident in his car after practice, but by the time race day rolled around, his car was undriveable. He quickly had to pit for adjustments, falling two laps behind and into last place.
At race's end, Bowyer climbed back to 27th, but he still fell to ninth in points.
Sure, a 16th-place finish isn't a particularly sexy or impressive result, even for a team like Richard Petty Motorsports that still fights the perception of instability. But at 10th in points, Aric Almirola can still claim to outrank perennial Chase contenders Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick in the standings—which is pretty cool to talk about, even if it is only March.
It wasn't a great week for Denny Hamlin, whose week began with NASCAR issuing him a $25,000 fine for criticizing the Gen-Six car after a third-place finish at Phoenix.
He had a chance to turn things around at Las Vegas, but a speeding penalty early in the race put him behind for most of the event. Though Hamlin did manage to lead three laps, he fell to a disappointing 15th place at race's end.
Actually, you know what? Scratch that. Hamlin actually came out a winner after saying he wouldn't pay the fine NASCAR assessed him. In fact, he even dared the sanctioning body to suspend him.
He's now a sympathetic figure—someone who the fans can trust to provide an honest assessment of the Gen-Six car, even if he claims he's going to keep his mouth shut in the future.
There's not much that Danica Patrick could have done with her 37th-place starting position, one of the most high-profile victims of Friday's rain that canceled qualifying. But another sub-30th place finish has dropped Patrick to 30th in points.
Nobody with realistic expectations thought that she would keep ripping off top-10s every week after Daytona, but that doesn't make the fall back to earth any less frustrating.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.