Harvick gets attention; Kenseth cruises

Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2003

JOLIET, Ill. Kevin Harvick is the man in the spotlight heading into Sunday's Tropicana 400, and that's just the way low-key Winston Cup points leader Matt Kenseth likes it.

While Harvick gets headlines as he drives for his third straight win at Chicagoland Speedway, the quiet Kenseth goes into the 18th event of the 36-race season with a 180-point lead over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Nobody held a bigger edge at this point in the season since Dale Earnhardt Sr. had a 209-point advantage over Dale Jarrett in 1993. Earnhardt went on to beat Rusty Wallace for the Winston Cup championship by 80 points.

None of his competitors is handing Kenseth anything yet, of course, but 18 of the last 28 championships were won by the driver leading after 17 races.

Kenseth's top finish in three years in NASCAR's top stock car series was eighth place last season, when he led Winston Cup with five victories. He certainly doesn't want to talk about winning a championship with half a season to go.

Actually, he's tough to get talking at all.

But what he is willing to discuss is consistency. That's the main reason he has been leading the standings since the fourth race this season.

''We've been pretty consistent, we've been pretty competitive,'' Kenseth said, ''and we've been there at the end, so that's important.''

So far this season, Kenseth has only one win, but he also has seven top-five finishes and 14 top-10s and has completed every race.

His only problem so far has been qualifying: Only twice this season has Kenseth started a race better than 12th. He will start Sunday's 400-mile event 24th in the 43-car lineup.

''Qualifying and racing are two different things,'' he said. ''Our qualifying has been average for us this year. We've been middle of the pack. ... It would be better to start off in the front because we could probably collect more bonus points than what we collect now. But our race setups have been good.''

He's not far behind in bonus points five for leading one lap and five for leading the most laps in a race as it is. His 55 is tied with fourth-place Bobby Labonte, behind Earnhardt (75) and Jeff Gordon (60).

While Kenseth is happy to be out front and very pleased that his No. 17 Roush Racing Ford has completed all but one lap so far this season, he isn't feeling very secure.

''A lot of people haven't really noticed we had that one streak where we faltered a little bit and they gained 120 points on me in three or four weeks, and we lost a whole bunch of points,'' he said.

''Since then, we've been able to get some of our momentum back and, hopefully, we can keep that.''

If he does stay out front, Kenseth knows he is also going to find it harder to avoid the spotlight he generally shuns.

''If we can continue doing what we're doing, I think it's going to get busier, and more people are going to talk about it, and more people are going to be on you about it,'' Kenseth said. ''I've already seen that the last couple of weeks. It's been cool because mostly everybody's been leaving us alone.''

Tracy takes pole in Toronto

TORONTO Paul Tracy is soaking up every second of his time in the spotlight.

The CART series leader furthered his homecoming celebration Saturday by earning the top starting spot for the Molson Indy, his first ever pole on Toronto's temporary street course.

Tracy, a Toronto native nicknamed ''The Thrill From West Hill,'' ran a lap at 58.839 seconds, going 107.378 mph around the winding 1.755-mile course at Exhibition Place.

Then he watched and waited to see if Bruno Junqueira, the provisional polesitter based on his speeds from Friday's session, would best him.

He didn't, and Tracy celebrated by pumping his fist to the screaming crowd, then hoisted the pole-winner's trophy high into the air for his loyal fans to see.

''It's fantastic,'' he said. ''I was out of the car with five minutes to go in the session and I just had to wait. That's always hard to do because Bruno and Michel (Jourdain) can put a lap together at any time and with the changing track conditions, you just didn't know.''

Junqueira will start second in Sunday's race after running a lap at 106.486 mph and Jourdain qualified third at 106.691.

Both were disappointed with their efforts: Junqueira because the on-and-off again rain prevented him from running a lap in prime track conditions and Jourdain because of alleged blocking from other competitors.

''It was just a really, really frustrating day,'' Jourdain said.

Their lack of enthusiasm on the podium did nothing to temper Tracy's excitement.

In contention for the first CART championship of his career, the 34-year-old Tracy has had a glorious homecoming all week.

He hosted a red-carpet party at Wayne Gretzky's restaurant on Friday night, arriving with a Playboy Playmate that landed him on the cover of the local papers. And he held court in the VIP room, where his fellow competitors all toasted him as bouncers fended off would-be crashers.

''I'm trying to teach my two protg's here how to live the life,'' Tracy said as he placed his arms around Junqueira and Jordan, eliciting a roar of laughter.

So shy and withdrawn early in his career, Tracy has apparently finally found his niche and is loving it.

''I've been doing this a long time, and I've been in the shadow of a lot of great stars of our sport,'' he said. ''I'm in that position now because of the years and the experience in the series, so it's my time right now and I am relishing that time.''

So much so that a flap with CART leader Chris Pook stemming from last week's race in Cleveland has quickly turned to old news.

Pook was first upset with Tracy because the driver failed to shave and wore shorts to a CART media event. The tension escalated when the CART CEO confronted Tracy in the pits at Cleveland after a run-in with Jourdain.

Pook had a Friday meeting with representatives from Tracy's Player's/Forsythe team, and said Saturday he had no problems with Tracy.

''He's the star of our series,'' Pook said. ''He's a great driver, a great character. He's exuberant in some of his comments, but he's largely very positive for our series and very showful.''

Tracy said it took him a long time to blossom into that role. Once overweight with glasses, he's now physically fit with platinum-bleached hair and the brightest star of the struggling series.

''I like to have fun, I like to say what's on my mind ... but I really enjoy what I do and I have a passion for it,'' he said. ''It didn't come natural for me at first. When I first started racing, I didn't say two words. It's just something you get used to with experience. I have a certain flair for it now.''

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