Originally created 09/08/02

Kenseth wins; points battle tightens up



RICHMOND, Va. - They figured the fuel mileage once, twice, three times in Matt Kenseth's pit Saturday night, and no matter how many times they crunched the numbers, he couldn't make it all the way to the checkered flag.

So they threw away the calculator.

Kenseth got his DeWalt Ford Taurus to circle around the three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway five times beyond what his Roush Racing team expected, and that was all he needed to win the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400.

It was an improbable finish to a night of bizarre twists.

To understand just how wacky the race was, consider this: Jeff Gordon finished 40th in the race and gained ground on points leader Sterling Marlin.

Kenseth said he wasn't as concerned as much about gas as he was tires. He figured he could squeeze an extra five laps out of his gas tank if he nursed the throttle in the closing laps.

"We didn't have to run it that hard," Kenseth said. "I wasn't too worried about the fuel. I figured I could save five laps."

Kenseth had two flat right-front tires in the first 200 laps, but he recovered from both to take the lead with 100 laps to go. The first flat tire came on the 68th lap and it left him a lap down. He got back on the lead lap, only to have another flat on the 166th lap.

A caution midway in the race that caught many of the leaders in the pits allowed Kenseth to get back in sync with the top-10 cars, and from there he put on a charge that didn't stop until he was comfortably out front.

Even as he pulled away to a 100-yard lead with 30 laps to go, his crew calculated he would be about five laps short on fuel.

What made it easy for Kenseth to coast were the problems of his closest challengers. Rusty Wallace was closing in from second when he blew a right-front tire with 11 laps remaining. Tony Stewart then moved into second place, but he lost a transmission with five to go.

After that, Kenseth didn't have to push his car - or use a lot of gas - again.

Ryan Newman wound up second, followed by Jeff Green in third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fourth, Todd Bodine in fifth, Mark Martin in sixth, Ricky Rudd in seventh, Ward Burton in eighth, Dave Blaney in ninth and Jeremy Mayfield in 10th.

The complexion of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings changed early and often in the first 100 laps.

Points leader Sterling Marlin, who went to the top of the standings after the second race of the season, crashed on the ninth lap and finished last. Even if his crew could make repairs on his Dodge, Marlin said his chest and neck hurt too bad to finish the race.

"That's the hardest I've ever hit, harder than any football game I've been in," Marlin said. "We're sore, but we'll get them next week at New Hampshire."

That opened the door for Jeff Gordon to move up one position and into the points lead, but his Chevrolet suddenly slowed on the backstretch with a broken camshaft. He finished 40th and ended a streak of running at the end of the last 56 races.

Gordon was 10th-fastest in qualifying, but he crashed his car in the final practice session and was forced to start last in a backup car.

"We were trying to work our way through there," Gordon said. "Anytime I get there (in position to challenge for the points lead), anytime anybody gets there, something happens."

Other contenders fell off the pace with an assortment of problems. Jeff Burton crashed on the ninth lap. Dale Jarrett bounced off the backstretch wall early in the race and damaged his rear suspension and Michael Waltrip crashed on the backstretch while leading the 217th lap.

Despite his problems, Marlin maintained his lead over Gordon, who gained nine points on Marlin, but dropped from second to fifth in the rankings. The top five drivers head into next week's race at the New Hampshire International Speedway separated by just 82 points - the tightest point race among five drivers in NASCAR history.