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Matt Kenseth! Surprise, surprise, surprise

  Despite threatening weather early, Sunday's Dover 400 wound up under blue skies...though with a less than impressive crowd (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   DOVER, Del.
   Just when you thought you knew what was going on, cagey crew chief Jimmy Fennig turned the tables on everyone with a cool late race pit stop call that gave Matt Kenseth all the clean air and track position he needed to win Sunday's Dover 400.

   Kenseth, who has a reputation as 'the stealth bomber,' for his under-the-radar runs on the stock car tour, thus lived up to his rep with the surprise victory.
   Mark Martin, whose crew chief, Lance McGrew, also made a gambling call on tires at the end, and Martin hung on for second, just ahead of another gambler, Marcos Ambrose.
   That 1-2-3 was a big surprise, because for most of the three-hour-plus race the action was a duel between Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, a duel that was quite lively at times, particularly late.
   And then Clint Bowyer, after a couple rough weeks, charged into contention and seemed to have things his way with about 65 miles to go. In fact three of Richard Childress' drivers, also Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, ran strong enough late to win.


  These guys made the show, Jimmie Johnson (48) and Carl Edwards....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   But Juan Pablo Montoya's spin with about 40 miles to go set up a final round of pit stops, and the day's top front runners all played it by the book, taking four tires, though giving up track position.
   That seemed at the time not a bad move, with 18 men on the lead lap, given the strength Johnson and Edwards in particular had shown.
   However track position and clean air – versus dirty air back in the pack – proved a decisive difference. Johnson, Edwards and Bowyer never got back into contention, finishing sixth, seventh and ninth, respectively.
   And the gamblers – Kenseth, Martin, Ambrose, Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers – all finished ahead of them.


  But this guy, Matt Kenseth, stole the show, with a crafty late-race pit call by veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   "It was pretty exciting for me, especially the way we won -- we've lost more than way than we've won," Kenseth said.
   "We drove up from 24th to third or fourth early, but then the sun came out and the track change. But Jimmie made a good call at the end (for just two tires, rather than the four most others took)."
   Fennig actually made the two-tire call only when he had Kenseth up on the jack on pit road. "As I keyed the mike as we came into the pits, I asked Jimmy 'Are you sure you don't want to try just two tires?' And he came right back and yelled 'Two tires! Two tires!' It was just like we'd planned it.
   "There were times when I felt we had one of the best cars; but other times we felt our car was only seventh to 14th. The tires were great, no problems; but we've talked with Goodyear about this build-up for three or four years now. And you saw where track position was important at the end of the race.
   "The hardest thing for me, aside from the rubber build-up under green, was the rubber on the track for each restart. One time I restarted third and was eighth pretty quick because of that."
   This is Kenseth's first season with Fennig, "and it does take a little time to get to know a new crew chief." But they've got two wins already, a dominating performance at Texas and now this.


  Jack Roush (R) figured he'd be in Dover's victory lane Sunday, but with Carl Edwards. Instead teammate Matt Kenseth (L) pulled the stunner (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   "It does take a while to learn how to read a driver," Fennig said. "But we're getting along great."
   Martin had the lead for the final restart, but he didn't have much hope: "We are going to get eaten alive by those guys on fresh tires, but we'll give it all we've got," he told his crew at the green.
   And after the race Martin declined to talk about the decision to skip the pit stop.
   But it turned out that track position worked well for Martin. He didn't have quite the car that Kenseth did, but Martin easily had enough to notch his best finish of the season.
   "We've had a race car this good a lot this year, but it seems like we've found ourselves back in the pack and unable to get back to the front," Martin said.
    The race, which ended under warm, blue skies, after some early rain and the forecast of more, played out in front of surprisingly weak crowd, relatively, of maybe 75,000, given this market -- which includes Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City -- is one of the biggest in the country.
    And the pre-race hype included two weeks of crashing and fighting, headlined by Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, and Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman.
   Kenseth's win was his second of the season, but he concedes it's been a ragged year so far.
   "The last three weeks have been pretty frustrating to me," Kenseth said. "We had a flat at Darlington last week early, and we were three laps down."
   Jack Roush, Kenseth's team owner, conceded he was surprised at the finish.
   "As hard as it is to deal with this car-of-tomorrow in turbulent, when I saw Matt get through traffic early on that quick....these guys deserved this win," Roush said. "They didn't back into this.
   "Between the two of them, they made the gutsy call for two tires. And as many times as they've been burned by it, I was surprised."
   Bowyer, who appeared on the verge of victory in the final miles, said he too didn't think the two-tire gamble would pay off: "Probably two tires may have won the race, but when Shane (Wilson, his crew chief) said 'Four,' and that many guys stayed out or were on two, I really thought we would be able to get back up through them, especially as greasy and slimy as the track was on restarts. But it just didn't work out."
   Edwards too was surprised: "I didn't have any choice in it really (the four-tire call); that is up to the guys up on the box.
   "That is too tough a choice to make right there, and I don't blame (crew chief) Bob Osborne one bit.
    "I thought we would be able to march up through there, and I thought the race would be between Clint and me. I did see a couple cars go fast early on two tires, but I really felt we were going to have something.
    "But you can't look back; you have to look forward -- We still have the points lead and the fastest car here today."

  The finishing order of Sunday's FedEx 400 benefitting Autism Speaks at Dover, Del.



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