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MOTOR RACING

Kenseth Is Keeping His Cool

October 26, 2003|From Associated Press

Four races to go in the 2003 Winston Cup championship and Matt Kenseth isn't showing any signs of cracking.

There were those two bad finishes that cut his series lead from a season-high 436 points over Kevin Harvick to 259. But Kenseth quickly rebounded, finishing eighth at Charlotte and 13th at Martinsville in his last two outings.

Going into today's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the lead stands at 240 points.

If the Roush Racing driver finishes 12th or better in the final four races, regardless of the performance of any other driver, he will give team owner Jack Roush his first Winston Cup title.

Kenseth has been very consistent this season. He goes into the Atlanta race with only one win, but 10 top fives and 23 top 10s in 32 starts. And he can't help but be thinking about the championship as the season inches closer to its conclusion Nov. 16 in Homestead, Fla.

"The bigger your lead is, with less races to go, you definitely think about the championship," Kenseth said. "But I still think it's at a point where we could still mess it up.

"I think it's ours to lose."

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ATLANTA FAVORITE: Bobby Labonte is considered one of the favorites any time he shows up at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

That's because Labonte has had considerable success there since he first came to the track as an 18-year-old and finished third in a Daytona (now Goody's) Dash Series race.

Labonte, now 39, leads all active drivers with six Winston Cup victories on the AMS track, all of them coming in his last 14 starts. He's finished first or second in nine of 21 races at the track outside Atlanta.

Labonte won his first Cup race at Atlanta in the fall of 1996.

Midway through the next season, the track was reconfigured from a 1.522-mile oval to a 1.54-mile quad-oval and the starting line was switched to the opposite side of the track. The changes didn't slow Labonte down at all.

He won the first two races on the new track.

"It's always exciting to race here," he said.

Labonte goes into Sunday's race eighth in the season points -- a disappointing season for the 2000 Winston Cup champion.

He has 10 top-five finishes but only 14 top 10s in the first 32 races this season, and his only victory came, not surprisingly, at Atlanta on March 9.

Labonte has been mostly struggling of late, with nothing better than a sixth-place finish and only three top 10s in his last 15 starts. Last Sunday at Martinsville, an engine failure relegated his Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet to a 41st-place finish.

But Labonte takes some solace from the fact that four-time series champion Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville -- a season sweep of the two races at the Virginia track -- after going winless since April.

"He's only won two races this year, both of them at one track, so I figure I can win two races at one track, too," Labonte said.

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INTIMIDATION: Scott Wimmer takes over the No. 22 Bill Davis Racing Dodge this week in Atlanta, the Winston Cup ride previously held by Ward Burton, who has moved to Haas CNC Racing's No. 0 Pontiac.

Wimmer, the Busch Series regular for the Davis team, will drive the No. 22 the rest of this season and move full time to Winston Cup in 2004 as a candidate for rookie of the year.

He has previously driven in six Winston Cup races, including two this season -- none more memorable than his debut at Atlanta in November 2000.

Wimmer had planned to drive in the ARCA race that weekend, but qualifying for that event was rained out and he did not make the starting field. Instead, Davis entered him in the Winston Cup race.

Wimmer qualified 31st, led several laps and, on one restart, found seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt right behind his rear bumper.

"I looked in my rearview mirror and all I saw was that mustache," said Wimmer. "I was so nervous all I kept thinking was, 'Don't spin out.'

"That was the one and only time I've ever raced against Dale Senior and I could see why everyone called him The Intimidator. It was probably the most scared I had ever been in a race car."

Earnhardt, killed in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, never touched Wimmer that day, simply bypassing the newcomer on the way to a second-place finish. Wimmer wound up 22nd.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon have all posted top-five finishes in each of the past five races. Newman has two victories during that stretch, while Stewart and Gordon have one each.

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