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Kenseth stays hot in Las Vegas

Posted: Monday, March 08, 2004

LAS VEGAS Defending champion Matt Kenseth rolled to his second straight NASCAR Nextel Cup win Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, surpassing his victory total of 2003 in only the third race of the season.

Kenseth, criticized last season for winning the series title with boring consistency and only one race victory, was dominating for the second straight year in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.

''It's been a fun two weeks, the most fun I've had in a race car in my life,'' Kenseth said. ''We've just got an unbelievable team and unbelievable equipment. Man, this thing was fun to drive.''

In his win two weeks earlier at Rockingham, Kenseth had to hold off a challenge from rookie Kasey Kahne, winning by only inches. This time, there was no one to challenge Kenseth after he moved past Kevin Harvick on lap 230 to regain the lead for the fourth and final time in the 267-lap event.

The 23-year-old Kahne, in only his third Cup start, wound up second again Sunday, inheriting the runner-up spot five laps from the end when Harvick ran out of gas and coasted to the pits. Harvick wound up 21st.

Kahne, who started from the pole, crossed the finish line 3.426 seconds about half a straightaway behind Kenseth's No 17 Ford.

Tony Stewart finished third, followed by Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Elliott Sadler, Casey Mears, Kurt Busch and Rusty Wallace.

The race was supposed to be the first true test of the new combination of a shorter rear spoiler and softer tires, intended by NASCAR to make the racing more exciting by allowing more passing.

But this race didn't look much different than the previous six on the 1 1/2-mile Vegas oval, with mostly single-file racing.

There were 18 lead changes among 10 drivers, but many of them came during pit stop sequences and had nothing to do with passing on the racetrack.

Kenseth, who started 25th, led a race-high 123 laps, including the final 38. He appeared to have the fastest car all day. Several times, the winner built leads of up to 4 seconds before caution flags erased the margin.

He was leading Stewart by about 20 car lengths when Kevin Lepage's blown engine dumped oil on the track on lap 183. The leaders made their final pit stops on lap 184 and an uncharacteristic slow stop by his Roush Racing crew left Kenseth seventh for the restart on lap 193 with Harvick in the lead.

''If there was ever a time to have a bad one, that was a good one,'' Kenseth said of the slow stop. ''We actually adjusted the car a little bit and made it better.''

Once the green flag flew, Kenseth set sail after the leaders, gaining two positions on the first two laps, moving to fourth on lap 200, third on lap 209 and passing Stewart for second on lap 221.

He then cut into Harvick's lead on every lap and pulled alongside the leader coming off turn four on lap 230. The two crossed the finish line side-by-side, with Kenseth ahead by the nose of his car.

But, by the time they reached turn one, Kenseth was several car-lengths ahead and pulling away steadily.

The victory was the eighth of Kenseth's Cup career and vaulted him into the series point lead, one race earlier than he took the top spot for good on the way to the 2003 title. He leads Stewart by 88 points going into next Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Sunday's race was disastrous for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who came here leading the points after winning the Daytona 500 and finishing fifth at Rockingham.

Earnhardt struggled throughout the day, spending considerable time in the garage area before coming back out to salvage 35th place. Earnhardt fell to seventh, 125 points behind Kenseth.

The win also continued the dominance of Jack Roush's team at Las Vegas, where his cars have now won five of the seven races.



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