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Kenseth Victory Is Really the Pits

Motor racing: He starts race from the back of the pack, but gets out first after last caution flag to win Samsung/Radio Shack 500.

April 09, 2002|ED HINTON | ORLANDO SENTINEL

FORT WORTH — Tough as it was to pass at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday, Matt Kenseth knew there was only one sure place to take the lead for good--in the pits, under the last caution flag.

"I wanted to make it so the race would be mine to lose," Kenseth said after winning the Samsung/Radio Shack 500, which had been postponed because of rain Sunday. "I wanted to see what I could do from up there."

So he had his crew change only two tires. Most other top contenders did the same. But Kenseth's crew gave him a bonus, getting him out of the pits in first place, just ahead of Jeff Gordon.

"I was worried about my restart, and whether Jeff might get under me in the first few laps of green [when the race went green with 22 laps to go]," Kenseth said.

But he quickly found he could hold off Gordon, his only late challenger, with greater ease as the laps waned. It was a pleasant feeling indeed for Kenseth, who'd been forced to start last in the 43-car field for changing engines in his Ford after qualifying.

"Once I got a little cushion, I felt pretty good about it," said Kenseth, a 30-year-old driver who collected his second victory of this, his third Winston Cup season. "It was tough to be behind somebody today."

Gordon agreed. "It's all about getting clean air to the nose of the car," he said, referring to the aerodynamic phenomenon drivers call "aero push."

Kenseth explained: "When you get behind somebody it takes all the downforce off the front."

That is, the lead car diverts onrushing air so that not much streams down onto the second car's nose and hood. That causes the front to lose traction.

"It doesn't hold the front tires down, so it's hard to turn," Kenseth said.

Mark Martin rushed up to challenge for second place, but Gordon held on.

"[As that last caution ended] I thought I might have a shot at Matt," Gordon said. "But he was out in clean air, so as long as he ran his line, I couldn't pass him. It was the same thing when Mark caught me. He couldn't pass me once he got to me."

But aero push is chronic virtually everywhere on the Cup tour nowadays. Drivers had feared it would be virtually impossible to pass here, because of a repaving job that, they figured, would make Texas Motor Speedway a one-groove track.

The new surface proved to be more forgiving, making for a cleaner and less-harrowing race than drivers had anticipated.

"We were all worried about this being a one-groove track," Kenseth said. "But the outside groove came in really quickly--which I never dreamed it would. It wasn't that bad to pass at first. After that first mandatory pit stop [called by NASCAR officials after 35 laps, to check tire wear on the new surface] we got out of the pits in 15th place.

"But once I got into the top 10, it was really difficult to pass. [On the final pit stop] I knew three or four others were going to take only two tires. And I knew if we got behind 'em, there was no way we could come back and win the race."

There were seven cautions in the race, which was attended by a crowd estimated at 180,000, but no serious injuries. The hardest crash occurred when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was clipped by Shawna Robinson as he tried to lap her. Earnhardt's car spun and slammed into the wall backward, but he walked away from the crash.

"It seemed like a lot of guys used their heads," Gordon said, referring to the drivers' apprehension about the new surface. "That's good. As fast as we're going around this place [nearly 200 mph in places], you'd better."

Kenseth strengthened his second position in the Winston Cup point standings, cutting the deficit on leader Sterling Marlin by 29 points, to only 70. Marlin finished seventh Monday.

*

Ed Hinton covers motor sports for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Co. newspaper.

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