Kenseth The Big Gun At Texas

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FORT WORTH, Texas – Matt Kenseth came into the NASCAR Winston Cup Series with a world of championship potential. Now, it’s really beginning to show.

Kenseth put on a strong performance in the final 100 laps, then held off Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin to win Monday’s Samsung/Radio Shack 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Kenseth’s second victory of the 2002 season in seven races.

Kenseth cut into Sterling Marlin’s points lead, as well. He now trails Marlin by 70 points.

The victory was the third of Kenseth’s Winston Cup career. He didn’t win a race during his entire sophomore season last year.

Kenseth’s Roush Racing teammate, Martin, finished third, followed by Ricky Rudd, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Sterling Marlin, Jimmy Spencer, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte.

A caution flag flew for Kurt Busch’s spin on Lap 309. Kenseth, who took the lead with 33 laps to go, took on two tires and fuel and resumed the point coming out of the pits and never lost it.

Kenseth said there was some discussion as to whether to take two tires or four on the last pit stop.

“I think they were voting down there,” Kenseth said. “I wanted to get two. We always go the safe way. Our rookie year, we lost at California that way. We led all day, led the most laps, and I got four at the end and got beat by two tires, so I wanted to go for it once.

“I knew if we got four, three or four of those guys were going to take two tires and if we got behind them, I knew we weren’t gonna pass them and win the race. But if we had two, at least we were gonna have a shot of getting away a little bit on the start. At least then it would be my race to lose, so I wanted to be out front and see what we could do there.”

Team owner Jack Roush said he wasn’t even involved in the tire decision.

“No, my vote doesn’t count for anything during the race – it’s (crew chief) Robbie (Reiser) and Matt (Kenseth) deciding what they want,” Roush said. “I’ll maybe write Robbie some notes and say ‘I see this or I see that,’ be he has the final word and there’s no recourse or second-guessing.”

Nobody was second-guessing Reiser after the race Monday.

“It was pretty much a group decision,” Reiser said. “I said, ‘Do you think we should put four on?’ And they all shook their head and said, ‘No, two,’ so they over-ruled the deal and we took two.”

Kenseth, who started last after blowing an engine in practice on Friday, earned his first victory in nearly two years when he won at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham in February.

“This was a great effort by the guys,” Kenseth said. “Being out in clean air was the deal. We had an engine problem and we started last, and I never thought we’d have a shot at winning today. It’s awesome, next to unbelievable. We had a great car all day.”

After winning only two races a year ago (Jeff Burton had both), Roush Racing has already recorded three trips to victory lane in 2002. Second-year driver Kurt Busch has the other one, at Bristol, two weeks ago.

Kenseth won the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May of 2000, but suffered a drought of nearly 60 races before winning at Rockingham. He finished a respectable 13th in the points a year ago, but managed only four top-five finishes all year.

Monday’s victory was his third top-five finish of the season.

“Everything has worked out for us,” Kenseth said.

Martin jumped three places in the standings to fifth and is 144 points behind Marlin. Martin, who looked extremely strong in the final 50 laps, is still searching for his first victory since 2000, but has posted four top-10 finishes already this season.

“Man, I love this team,” Martin said. “All of these guys, they’re building me better and better cars and they’re doing good on pit road. I’m really, really privileged to work with this Viagra team. They’re good guys and I think that we’ll be strong this summer. I think we’ll get better the more we work together.

“We maybe had one of the very best cars here today on the long run, but we were pitiful on new tires, so the way it finished up it was good to where we could just take two. I wished we didn’t have to take any, but we had to. It’s just a great, great feeling to get a finish like this.”

Gordon’s streak of 15 races without a top-five finish is over. The defending Winston Cup Series champion hadn’t posted a top-five finish since winning the inaugural race at Kansas Speedway last September. It was Gordon’s 300th Winston Cup start.

Gordon, who started from the 24th position, jumped four places in the Winston Cup standings to sixth. He’s 173 points out of Marlin’s lead.

Robert Yates Racing hasn’t had a lot to crow about in 2002, but it appeared Monday as if both Dale Jarrett and Rudd would make a strong run for the victory. Jarrett led 134 of the first 187 laps and was running second behind Wallace when he ran out of fuel on the backstretch on Lap 228.

He came into the pits and his crew refueled the car, but the car wouldn’t fire. He then got stuck behind Gordon, who had pulled into the pit in front of him. Jarrett, who won last year’s race at Texas, lost two laps and wound up finishing a disappointing 24th.

Rudd, who also took a turn at the front of the pack Monday, was running in the Top 5 with just over 110 laps to go, but his No. 28 Ford began running off the pace. He got a lap back later and was able to finish in the Top 5.

Torrential rains throughout the day on Sunday postponed the race until Monday afternoon. That didn’t deter the fans from coming out in droves, as the crowd was estimated at over 180,000, easily one of the largest audiences the Winston Cup Series will play to this season.

Texas’ capacity is estimated at nearly 205,000 seats.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the favorites to win Monday’s event, made contact with the lapped car of Shawna Robinson going into Turn 1 on Lap 185. He spun around and hit the wall hard. When he got out of his car, he was favoring his left arm.

Robinson appeared to hold her line going into Turn 1, but Earnhardt Jr. didn’t see it that way.

“She’s a good racecar driver, but they need to get her in better equipment,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s hard to dodge her every 15 laps. It’s a shame because we had a good car. I’m OK, but any time you hit the wall here at these speeds you’re going to hit it hard.”

Following a re-start after Earnhardt Jr.’s accident, Wallace took the lead from Jarrett. With 138 laps to go, Wallace then began to run some of the fastest lap times of the day and slowly put distance between himself and the rest of the pack.

By Lap 220 (24 laps later), Wallace had extended his margin over Jarrett to just over three seconds.

The Winston Cup Series heads to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway this weekend for the Virginia 500, where Jarrett will once again have the opportunity to defend his race title.

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