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Kenseth Holds the Upper Hand Again

The defending Cup champion wins his second consecutive NASCAR race by dominating the field at Las Vegas.

March 08, 2004|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — If it weren't for those pesky yellow caution flags, Matt Kenseth might have lapped the 42 other cars in NASCAR's Nextel Cup race here Sunday.

As it was, the defending Cup champion from Cambridge, Wis., brought team owner Jack Roush his fifth victory in seven races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before a sellout crowd of about 140,000. When his Ford Taurus took the checkered flag, Kenseth's margin over rookie pole-sitter Kasey Kahne was 3.246 seconds -- nearly a quarter-mile -- and he led 123 of the 267 laps in the UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400, but even that doesn't tell his dominance.

After hearing criticism for having won the Winston Cup championship last year despite winning only one race -- here at Las Vegas -- Kenseth has responded by winning two of the first three Nextel Cup races this season. Two weeks ago he won at Rockingham, N.C.

Kenseth qualified 25th and it took him 95 laps to move to the front, but once there it was only a question of whether he could keep out of harm's way.

"This is a race-car driver's dream come true to come out and win two in a row," Kenseth said after winning $458,828 for a little more than three hours' driving. "It's unbelievable to be able to have this good of a car and to be able to lead all those laps and kind of dominate the way we did. I just can't wait to keep racing."

A momentary blip occurred late in the rather boring race when he pitted and the crew had trouble getting a lug nut unstuck. After having pitted in the lead, Kenseth came out seventh on the restart.

There were 73 laps remaining and one by one, the black and yellow DeWalt Ford picked off Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart and finally Kevin Harvick on Lap 230. It had taken him only 27 laps to get in front.

Following Kahne, the rookie from Enumclaw, Wash., who took the pole Friday with a record 174.904-mph lap, were Stewart, McMurray and Martin.

Harvick was running a strong second but ran out of fuel with four laps to go and watched 20 cars pass him.

"What can you say, we had a top-five car and finished 21st," a disconsolate Harvick said. Stewart was almost as unhappy.

"I busted the tires off trying to get by Harvick," Stewart said. "If I'd known he was going to run out of gas I'd have taken it a little easier. That's how we lost second to Kasey. I just busted the front tires off."

The engine in Kenseth's car, jointly built by Roush and Robert Yates, performed flawlessly. Roush had two other finishers in the top 10. Martin, who won the first Las Vegas race in 1998, was fifth, and Busch, the hometown favorite who led the first four laps, was ninth.

"My engines are awesome with Jack and Robert's deal that they put together with Ford Racing. It's unbelievable," Kenseth said.

For many years Roush and Yates were bitter enemies, both building Fords and trying harder to beat one another than to beat other manufacturers. Before this season, Ford management decided to bring them together and amazingly, the two agreed. Now Ford's premier engine builders are sharing ideas and building engines in the same plant.

Once Kenseth passed Stewart to lead for the first time, he pulled steadily ahead, increasing his margin nearly every time he lapped the 1 1/2-mile, D-shaped oval. Twice his margin over the second-place car reached four seconds, but each time a caution flag brought the pack together. As soon as the green flag brought on racing speeds, it was Kenseth on the move again.

"If there was a time to have a bad [pit stop] that was the time," Kenseth said of the sticky lug nut. "It actually didn't hurt us that bad because we adjusted the car a little bit. When we were in front we were perfect and when we were behind we needed to be a little freer and we were able to take care of that."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the people's favorite, had a long day. He was embarrassingly lapped by Kahne on the 23rd lap and after coming in and out of the garage, continued to drive, apparently to please his sponsor and the squealing young followers who cheered every time he came by, no matter how far behind.

It was also a long day for four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who had to drop to the rear of the field after changing engines in his Chevrolet after qualifying. He worked his way up to seventh, but the effort took its toll and he dropped back to finish 15th.

The results show that there were 18 lead changes among 10 drivers, but six of the leaders were in front only because they stayed on the track when all the lead cars pitted. Only Kenseth, Stewart with 45 lead laps and Kahne and Harvick, with 43 each, were truly race leaders.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Nextel Cup Series

Driver standings after UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400 at Las Vegas:

*--* Rk. Driver Pts. S W T10 1. Matt 523 3 2 3 Kenseth 2. Tony 435 3 0 2 Stewart 3. Elliott 405 3 0 2 Sadler 4. Jeff 404 3 0 2 Gordon 5. Kurt Busch 400 3 0 2 6. Kevin 399 3 0 1 Harvick 7. Dale 398 3 1 2 Earnhardt Jr. 8. Kasey 385 3 0 2 Kahne* 9. Jamie 385 3 0 2 McMurray 10. Casey 367 3 0 1 Mears 11. Bobby 360 3 0 1 Labonte 12. Rusty 356 3 0 2 Wallace 13. Joe 347 3 0 1 Nemechek 14. Jeremy 339 3 0 0 Mayfield 15. Ward 335 3 0 1 Burton *rookie; S: Starts; W: Wins; T10: Top-10 finishes

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