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Kenseth edges Kahne at the checkered flag

Monday, February 23, 2004

Matt Kenseth's winning margin was the fourth-closest in history.
ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) -- Was that really Matt Kenseth driving his way into Victory Lane for the first time in almost a year?
Sure was. And he did it with a thrilling finish at North Carolina Speedway that ranked as the fourth-closest in NASCAR history.
Edging rookie Kasey Kahne at the finish line Sunday in the Subway 400 was the best possible way for Kenseth to silence critics, who consider him boring and found the way he won his first series title last season to be uneventful.
"I've been almost giddy for the last two months, because I've been so looking forward to this year more so than any other year," Kenseth said. "We knew we could come here and do these things."
One win this year
Last year, Kenseth led the points standings for a record 33 straight weeks and collected a series-best 25 top 10s. But his strategy was to be consistent rather than chase victories, and he ended the year with just one win. He led only 354 laps all season.
It lacked any drama and NASCAR changed the points system this year to prevent a repeat.
So Kenseth switched gears Sunday.
He led a race-high 259 laps, and fought the conservative side of him that was too scared to make changes to the car for fear of disrupting the balance before the final run.
Then he fought off a furious charge from Kahne before edging him at the line by .010 seconds -- the nose of the No. 17 Ford.
"Some people have said we can't lead laps and we can't win races, we just go finish seventh every week. So it was awesome to go out and do it," Kenseth said. "There wasn't much bad you could say about our year last season [and not winning] was one of the things. This just proved people wrong and shows we can do good."
Could be the finale
It was yet another thrilling finish at what could be the final race at "The Rock." The tiny track has already lost one of its races under NASCAR's realignment plan and poor attendance could ultimately cost it its remaining date.
There were only about 50,000 fans in attendance at a track that seats 60,113, and those who stayed home missed a finish too close to call with the naked eye.
"I wasn't sure who won," said Kahne, who replaced Bill Elliott this year in the car Elliott drove to victory here last November. "It was too close and went by too fast. It was just fun to run second."
The finish was set up after Robby Gordon wrecked with 42 laps to go, bringing out the final caution. Several cars were already on pit road, including Kenseth. But he inexplicably stayed in front during a confusing exchange of stops that left just nine cars on the lead lap.
Kenseth was listed as the leader on the restart with just 30 laps to go, followed by Kahne, Jamie McMurray, Sterling Marlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Ward Burton.
Created a protest
That led to a protest from McMurray's Chip Ganassi Racing team, which felt Kenseth and Kahne shouldn't have been the leaders.
McMurray finished third in a Dodge and, after admitting he didn't understand how NASCAR scored the final stop, said a protest meant little to him.
"I asked a lot of questions under caution and I still don't understand it," McMurray said. "But I could care less about those guys getting disqualified. It would be no fun winning on Monday."
Kenseth opened up a large lead on the restart as he pulled away while everyone behind him had to deal with traffic. But after Kahne and McMurray flopped spots, they set their sights on running down Kenseth.
The three ran nose-to-tail over the final laps, with Kenseth often taking the high line as Kahne tried to sweep below him in the No. 9 Dodge and into the lead. McMurray went even lower, but could never get past either.
It set up a battle between Kenseth and Kahne on the final lap, with Kahne pulling even down the final stretch before getting nosed out at the line.
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