Catching Kenseth: It's possible but not likely someone will beat points leader

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2003

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick swapped positions and bounced off each other during much of last Saturday night's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Neither was a contender to win, but their battle outside the top 10 was compelling because it involved the top two drivers in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings. It was as if Harvick was desperately trying to make something happen to throw Kenseth off his game.

It will take a lot more than mind games and bumper tag to derail Kenseth's run to a championship. After finishing 12th last week, Kenseth has a commanding 267-point lead over Harvick, who finished 14th.

That lead translates to some pretty daunting challenges for anyone who still harbors hope of beating Kenseth. At 267 points, he can almost skip two of the last five races and still be guaranteed having the lead in the standings.

But that won't stop everyone from trying.

''Can Kenseth be caught? Oh, yeah,'' Kyle Petty said. ''I think he can be caught. That doesn't mean he will. But as long as it's a possibility, he has to keep that in mind.''

Since NASCAR moved into its modern era in 1972, only five drivers have lost the championship after leading with five races to go. All of them, however, were in a much tighter points battle.

In 1979 Darrell Waltrip led Richard Petty by 48 points with five races remaining and Petty rallied to win the championship. Bobby Allison lost the 1982 championship to Waltrip after leading by 15 with five to go. In 1989 Dale Earnhardt couldn't make a 75-point lead over Rusty Wallace stand up, and in 1990 Mark Martin lost a 16-point lead and the championship to Earnhardt. And in 1996, Terry Labonte rallied from an 81-point deficit to beat his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

The combined lead for all five of those drivers was 234 points 33 points fewer than Kenseth.

And yet, there remains hope.

''As long as there is a mathematical chance that it can happen, yeah, it can happen,'' Ken Schrader said. ''Of course, a giant meteor could slam into the earth or there could be snowfall in Myrtle Beach (S.C.) next week, too. There is a difference in things that could happen and the likelihood of it actually happening.''

Mathematically, if Kenseth finishes no worse than 10th in each of the final five races, he would automatically clinch his first Winston Cup Series title. While that sounds like a lot, it's certainly more possible than anyone actually beating him. Kenseth already has 23 top 10 finishes in 31 starts this season.

Derrike Cope is one of many drivers who see no future in trying to catch Kenseth. He saw Kenseth build his huge lead by playing the point system to perfection. He only has one victory, but his 23 top-10 finishes has allowed him to slowly pull away from those with a lot more wins and a lot more problems.

Under the current system, however, Kenseth has seemingly lapped the field.

''I think it's going to be impossible to catch him,'' Cope said.

''It would take catastrophic mechanical failures and catastrophic amounts of bad luck for that to happen. They completely control what happens from here on out. Nobody can really do anything to catch him.''

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