Kenseth holds off Kahne, McMurray in N.C. thriller

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Defending NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth held off furious challenges from rookie Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray in the final laps to win Sunday's Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway.
   As Kenseth's car slid up the track, Kahne cut his machine underneath, making a bid to pass coming off turn four. At the end of 400 miles, his effort came up only a foot short.
   "I was doing everything I could," said Kenseth, the driver of the No. 17 DeWalt Ford. "I didn't know whether to protect the bottom or the top, so I tried to protect the middle and not overdrive the corner.
   "The last lap I had been loose off four and I got up as high as I could to get a run down off the corner. He got a good charge on me there. It was a close one."
   Kahne, making only his second career NASCAR Cup Series start, was driving the No. 9 Dodge Bill Elliott drove to victory in the last Cup Series race here in November.
   "I was doing all I could," said Kahne, whom Elliott coached in a test session here weeks earlier. "I could get little runs on Kenseth at times, but it was real hard to get him on the outside. I just tried to set him up for down here in turn four.
   "We were a little better on the entry and exit of both corners. It was a great finish for us. It was fun to run second in a Nextel Cup race. I couldn't tell if I won. It was definitely too close to tell at the end of the race."
   McMurray, winner of the Busch Series race on Saturday, won in only his second Cup Series start two seasons ago at Charlotte. He came dangerously close to a second career win after battling back from a mid-race deficit.
   "We came from a long ways behind," said McMurray. "We led a lot of laps at the beginning and then the car got loose. We had to tighten it up all day. The 17 and the 9 were better than us most of the day."
   There was some confusion about Kenseth and Kahne being put back in the first two positions ahead of McMurray after being trapped in the pits while an accident happened on the race track.
   "I was a little confused why the No. 17 and No. 9 were placed in front of me, when they pitted and we didn't," said McMurray, whose car owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates argued their points with NASCAR officials after the event.
   "I thought they would have been a lap down or at least be at the back of the lead lap cars. I'm a little confused there."
   Another controversy involved the role of Kenseth's teammate, Mark Martin, in a late-race restart. Both Martin and car owner Jack Roush were called to the NASCAR trailer after the race for what appeared to be Martin blocking the cars of Kahne and McMurray.
   For the third-place finisher, he thought Martin's tactics were unintentional.
   "I don't know Mark all that well, but I know him well enough to know he wouldn't do something like that," said McMurray. "He was trying to get out of the way. The three fastest cars were behind him and he was trying to get his lap back at the same time. I'm not mad at him. That was just racing, I felt like."
   Roush replied to the controversies: "There was a lot going on in that trailer. Chip and Felix were in serious odds with NASCAR over the rules that freeze the field.
   "It there was a question about Mark blocking anybody, that's out of order. Mark doesn't block anybody. He's been here 17 years now and he does all he can to get out of the way of his competitors. There weren't any team orders or anything like that."
   Martin was even more adamant that he never intentionally tried to alter the outcome.
   "I'm disappointed because I think people in the sport know I have a lot of integrity," said Martin. "I don't care who wins the race. I couldn't help it that the 42 and 9 got side by side. I never held the outside lane up. I wouldn't do that."
   Sterling Marlin, a teammate of McMurray's in the Ganassi Racing operation, finished fourth.
   Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. came in fifth place, his best career effort at Rockingham. With the finish, Earnhardt holds a 15-point lead in the NASCAR point standings over second place Kenseth with Kevin Harvick 25 points in arrears.
   "I think coming out of here with a top five is great," said Earnhardt. "We were fortunate on a lot of things. If you can find a way to get a good finish you're going to win championships. Matt did a lot of that last year.
   "We had good pit strategy and got lucky with the yellow flags and got a great finish. We didn't have a top five car, but we got a top five. That's what you've got to do. That wins championships."
   Polesitter Ryan Newman finished sixth, his Penske Racing teammate Rusty Wallace was seventh, Kurt Busch wound up eighth and former N.C. Speedway winner Ward Burton took home the ninth position.
   The top side of the track was the fast groove early. Jeff Gordon used that line to charge from fifth place to first in the first 40 laps.
   Kenseth passed Gordon on lap 90 and powered out to a three-second lead.
   Kenseth would go on to dominate the middle portion of the race, while Gordon lost a lap during a pit sequence and never recovered. Gordon wound up 10th.
   Defending race champion Dale Jarrett also posted a strong run in the opening stages, moving up from ninth to fifth in that first 40-laps. He ran in the top five until a blown engine on lap 213 left him in 40th position.
   Other high-profile drivers with poor finishes included former series champion Tony Stewart, who fought a loose handling car in a 26th place effort and last year's series runner-up Jimmie Johnson in 41st after a wreck on lap 131.
   One week removed from Daytona, Carl Long took a restrictor-plate track type tumble on the back stretch after contact from Joe Nemechek on lap 264. Long flipped the car five times before it came to rest at the entrance of turn three.
   After seeing the replay of the incident Long joked, "I didn't think I flipped that much. I only thought I flipped about twice."
   Lap 350 saw a second bizarre backstretch accident with a car's wheels leaving the ground. Jeff Green and Robby Gordon made contact and Gordon wound up on his side before landing back on the ground.
   Statistically no driver was a match for Kenseth, who led five times for 259 laps. Overall there 15 lead changes amongst six drivers, with the official margin of victory listed at a mere 0.010 seconds.
   Kahne, a top star in West Coast open wheel competition, seemed destined to be headed for the Indy Car circuit up until a few years ago. In only his second race, he established himself as one to be reckoned with on stock car racing's top circuit.
   Kenseth, one year after winning the series title with only one race victory, proved he and the No. 17 had not forgotten the way to the winner's circle.
   "We had such a good car for most of the race," said Kenseth about his eighth career victory and first victory since last March at Las Vegas. "I guess I should have adjusted it more. I was spinning my tires coming off the final corner. I didn't know it would be that close coming to the finish line.
   "I was surprised he had that much of a run. We had just enough speed to hold him off. It feels great to come out here and lead all those laps. It shows we can lead laps and win races."
   RACE NOTES
   * Rumors were abound everywhere this would probably be the last NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race if not for a sell-out. The hot rumor is that the event date from North Carolina Speedway would be sold by International Speedway Corporation to Speedway Motorsports with it being transferred to Texas.
   On Sunday under picture perfect weather conditions, there were few empty seats left in the grandstands. Whether the near capacity crowd and the thrilling finish to the Subway 400 will be enough to save the race date will be played out over the next several months.
   * The issue of rising costs combined with a lack of sponsorship for many NASCAR teams took center stage at the start of Sunday's Subway 400. The last seven starters in the race were teams without full-time sponsorship secured for the 2004 season.
   The No. 09 Dodge team of Joe Ruttman was placed at the back of the field for not even having a pit crew in the box at the start of the race. Ruttman completed all of one lap before pulling off the track and parking. Another field filler, Kirk Shelmerdine was lapped by the 12th circuit. He was black-flagged less than 10 laps later. Officials forced him to park the machine on lap 25.
   * When Jamie McMurray won the Goody's Headache Powders 200 NASCAR Busch Series race on Saturday, it was only his fourth straight Busch win at North Carolina Speedway. Amazingly the streak has been done with three different car owners and four separate crew chiefs.