Kenseth Keeps Rolling
June 10, 2003 | 12:17 A.M. EST
With rain washing out all of Saturday’s practice sessions, the NASCAR Winston Cup cars hit the track without the luxury of fine-tuning their cars. Kenseth started 25th on the day, but didn’t stay there long as he quickly found out he had an excellent race car.
Commenting on this factor, he stated:
“We didn’t change much. It was pretty decent all day. I struggled a little bit in one end, but I was real good in the other end so we didn’t change anything really big. It was a real good car on long runs. It wasn’t real fast the first few laps, but on the long run it was real good.”
He moved into the top-10 for the first time on lap 28. By the end of the run, crew chief Robbie Reiser kept Kenseth on the track to lead lap 49, collecting five bonus points in the process. It was on the ensuing pit stop on lap 50 that the DEWALT Team faced their real adversity of the day. Just as Kenseth pitted, he ran out of fuel, stalling the car — and the clutch began acting up just as the crew was pushing the car down pit road to get it fired again. After the costly extra time on pit road, Kenseth had fallen all the way back to 24th position, but he didn’t lose a lap in the process.
“We kind of got lucky and got our track position back because we made a little mistake and got behind in the pits, Kenseth said. "I think we ran out of gas, but we came back from that with the way the pit cycle worked out. We got up front and when we got up front the car handled real good.”
The caution did come out three laps later as Dale Jarrett backed his car into the wall in turn one. Reiser kept Kenseth out on the track as the leaders all pitted. Kenseth found himself right back where he was before the pit troubles — fifth position. One lap before his next green flag pit stop on lap 90, Kenseth again led a lap before coming in for service. 14.60 seconds later, he had four new tires entering turn one off of pit road.
By the halfway point at lap 100, Kenseth was running a strong third overall. Once more before his regularly scheduled green flag pit stop, Kenseth again led a lap for the third time on the day. Kenseth was beat off pit road, but never dropped out of the top-five over the next pit cycle of 35 laps.
After pitting for fuel on lap 154, there wasn’t a car on the track that could make it the rest of the distance on fuel. Kenseth would be about nine laps short according to calculations. The decision of when to pit was going to become a chess match among the crew chiefs on pit road.
Teammate Greg Biffle’s crew chief, Randy Goss, got the game going with a gutsy gamble to bring his driver in early on lap 166. The other crew chiefs, noticing the die had been cast, began bringing their drivers in for a splash of fuel to make it to the end of the race. Kenseth moved up to fourth place as two of the drivers ahead of him short pitted as well. Kenseth asked crew chief Robbie Reiser if they shouldn’t consider the same strategy. After calculating the amount needed, Reiser brought Kenseth down pit road for a gas and go on lap 178 of the 200-lap event. Kenseth returned to the track in 10th, but seven cars ahead of him still needed to stop. One by one, they did so until Kenseth was running third.
With just 16 laps to go, Kenseth keyed the mike and radioed to the crew, “Why are you being so quiet? Did we get enough fuel in or not?” Reiser chuckled and assured Kenseth that they indeed had gotten the required amount in the tank. By lap 191, every car had stopped for a splash of fuel and Kenseth was running third behind Tony Stewart and teammate Mark Martin.
Then, unexpectedly, teammate Kurt Busch cut a tire down with seven laps to go and slammed hard into the outside wall, bringing out the caution. All of the lead lap cars stayed put on the race track and held their positions through the final restart on lap 197. The restart was marred by a backstretch accident involving Jeff Green, which caused the race to end under caution. However, Kenseth was plenty satisfied with the results and he spoke about them soon afterward:
“We had about a third-place car there. I felt like I was as good as the 6. The 20 was pretty good. If we would have been in front, I think we were pretty equal but for how it turned out I’d say it was pretty good. It wasn’t discouraging [to end under caution] at all for me. I wasn’t gonna catch those guys. I was gonna finish third anyway. It’s a 500-mile race and we ran 490 miles. If there was a red flag it would kind of be setting everybody up for a wreck, so I was happy with the way it ended. It was good.”
Kenseth went on to speak about his remarkable consistency and how this year was different from the last:
“Compared to last year, [we’re doing] two things. At the end of last year I made a couple of mistakes, but so far we haven’t had any parts break — knock on wood — and we didn’t get in a big wreck at Daytona and Talladega. Last year I was in three out of the four big wrecks at the speedways and got destroyed and got terrible finishes in all of them. At this time last year we had some parts that were already breaking, so, so far, so good in that area. The car has been running at the end of the race and I’ve been lucky enough not to tear anything up yet. To finish first you must first finish and our stuff has been running at the end and that’s important.”
For the second week in a row, Kenseth widened his overall points lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kenseth now holds a commanding 176-point lead over second place heading into next week’s event at Michigan International Speedway.