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Matt Kenseth wins the Daytona 500

He gets his first victory in NASCAR's premier event when rain halts the race after 380 miles and 152 laps.

February 16, 2009|Tania Ganguli

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — As the rain clouds crept closer to Daytona International Speedway, Matt Kenseth crept closer to the front of the field, quietly but consistently.

He passed Elliott Sadler to take the lead on Lap 146, and when the rain fell six laps later, Kenseth -- known for his even-keeled and calm personality -- started screaming into his radio.

"Rain! Rain! Rain! Rain!"

This was a big moment.

NASCAR red-flagged Sunday's race, and 17 minutes later officials called it. Kenseth won his first Daytona 500 while sitting on pit road in his covered Roush Fenway Ford.

"It's going to be really wet out here because I'm crying like a baby," Kenseth said. "Man, I don't know. Winning the Daytona 500 is definitely a dream moment."

The race lasted only 380 miles, but it wasn't any less meaningful to the 2003 series champion. It was his first win at Daytona, his 17th overall, and the first win for Roush Fenway Racing in the Daytona 500.

"He's one of those guys that can win seven or eight races in a year and never receive any credit," said Kevin Harvick, who finished second. "He's a really good race car driver. He's a champion, Daytona 500 champion. I think a lot of times those things are overlooked."

If they are, it's because of the way Kenseth wins -- unglamorously and often uninterestingly. He won his series championship with only one win the entire season. NASCAR created the Chase for the Championship shortly thereafter, hoping to avoid such a result in the future.

Sunday afternoon, Kenseth was forced to start 39th because he went to a backup car after a wreck on Thursday. Nobody had ever won a Daytona 500 before from that far back.

By Lap 50 he was in fifth place.

Still, other cars were faster. Kyle Busch led a race-high 88 laps. While Busch was in the lead with 124 laps to go, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers -- both a lap down and battling for the lucky-dog position -- wrecked on the backstretch. Vickers and Earnhardt took several other cars with them, including that of Busch, whose night ended then.

"I felt like our car was the car to beat; we were awfully good," Busch said. "Just running out front and biding our time. I didn't feel like we were worse than sixth the whole time out there. Just a really sad feeling."

Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards also sustained damage to their cars in the wreck. Edwards finished 18th, Hamlin 26th and Johnson 31st.

It opened the door for Kenseth. When he went for the lead, he got a push from Harvick. Two years ago Kenseth pushed Harvick to a Daytona 500 win.

"I've never been lucky enough to have the shoe on the other foot," Kenseth said. "And it felt good."

With so many variables at restrictor-plate tracks, Kenseth didn't feel good about his Daytona 500 chances on Sunday morning. He hadn't won since Homestead (Miami) in 2007, and the drought (36 winless races) ate at him.

Saturday night he shared that with his wife.

"I was telling Katie, 'Man, I'm really getting fed up with not winning and not being a contender,' " Kenseth said.

Winning a Daytona 500 doesn't often lead to a series championship, but it isn't a bad start. Even if it was a rain-shortened race. Even if he led only one green-flag lap.

Said Kenseth: "I'll take it."

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tganguli@orlandosentinel.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Front-runners

The top 10 in Sunday's rain-shortened Daytona 500 (starting position in parentheses):

1. Matt Kenseth (39)

2. Kevin Harvick (32)

3. AJ Allmendinger (20)

4. Clint Bowyer (22)

5. Elliott Sadler (30)

6. David Ragan (33)

7. Michael Waltrip (27)

8. Tony Stewart (5)

9. Reed Sorenson (34)

10. Kurt Busch (13)

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RACE STATISTICS

Average speed of race winner: 132.816 mph.

Time of race: 2 hours 51 minutes 40 seconds.

Margin of victory: Under caution.

Caution flags: Eight for 35 laps.

Lead changes: Nine among nine drivers.

Lap leaders: M. Truex Jr. 1; M. Martin 2; Ky. Busch 3-52; D. Earnhardt Jr. 53; T. Stewart 54-68; J. Gordon 69-82; Ky. Busch 83-120; B. Labonte 121; E. Sadler 122-145; M. Kenseth 146-152.

Leaders summary (driver, times led, laps led): Ky. Busch, two times for 88 laps; E. Sadler, one time for 24 laps; T. Stewart, one time for 15 laps; J. Gordon, one time for 14 laps; M. Kenseth, one time for seven laps; M. Truex Jr., one time for one lap; M. Martin, one time for one lap; B. Labonte, one time for one lap; D. Earnhardt Jr., one time for one lap.

Top 12 in points: 1. M. Kenseth, 190. 2. K. Harvick, 170. 3. AJ Allmendinger, 165. 4. C. Bowyer, 160. 5. E. Sadler, 160. 6. D. Ragan, 150. 7. T. Stewart, 147. 8. M. Waltrip, 146. 9. R. Sorenson, 138. 10. M. Truex Jr., 135. 11. Ku. Busch, 134. 12. J. Gordon, 129.

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