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Emotions run the gamut in this Daytona 500...and for Matt Kenseth luck is finally back on his side


How to lose the Daytona 500...by just that much: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s right-front tire is just an inch over the line, but it's enough for a one-lap penalty. Moments later the angry Earnhardt crashed. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Amazing, yes, amazing.
   And if Matt Kenseth's luck holds up this well for the new few weeks, well, after such a ragged 2008 he certainly deserves some good luck.
   That's just what he got here Sunday, and he wound up winning the Daytona 500, for the first time, in something of an upset, in a SpeedWeeks dominated by Chevrolets and Toyotas.
   The night's hot dog, Kyle Busch, got wiped out in a crash triggered by Chevy star Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was having a bad night.
   And Jeff Gordon, with perhaps the second-best car in the field, had tire problems, and fell out of contention.
   Then in the frantic scramble to beat the rain Kenseth got a run on surprise leader Elliott Sadler just after what was the final restart and took the lead just moments before the final  caution came out…which turned into a red flag for rain…which turned into the game winning move of the night, when NASCAR looked at the radar and decided to call it a night.
   So Kenseth takes the Sprint Cup tour points leader to California this week for next Sunday's 500, where a win would  be much more likely in the cards.
   Team owner Jack  Roush himself seemed surprised by it all too.
   Kenseth's team has just been revamped again, after a disappointing 2008, and new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer was at the reins, with last year's crew chief, Chip Bolin, now back his regular slot as chief engineer.
   "I don't know if Drew deserves this," Roush cracked. "I had to wait over 20 years…and this is Drew's first race as a crew chief.
   "Chris Andrews gave us a great engineering package, Robbie Reiser (Kenseth's long-time crew chief) managed everything in the shop -- and sometimes managed me, to my dismay.
   "But of course Matt is at the center of it. 
   "And Matt Kenseth is as good at this business as anybody has been.

  Nope, not this time...again, for Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

"Last year I let him down by not being able to do for him what I needed to. If you're just off a hair in this business, you can't quite get it done.  That was the year we had with Matt last year. 
    "But, boy, they got the magic back."
   For Kenseth, memories of NASCAR's championship rules change after his 2003 title runaway are still sharp. After this, is he worried – laugh here – that NASCAR might order rain tires and windshield wipers for next year's 500?
   Well, it was a charmed night for Kenseth, certainly.
 "Without that last really good pit stop, we would have been in the wreck," Kenseth said of the big one, that took out Busch. "Kyle was right in front of me and got in the wreck, and Carl (Edwards) was right behind me and got in the wreck…
   "I nosed into somebody a little bit.  I actually thought it would have done something, but didn't really do any damage. 
    "We were probably more lucky than anything, to be honest.  We just shot straight through it. 
    "The seas parted, and we came out the other side.
    " Man, I've had that feeling a lot of times -- where we've had fast cars and I haven't maybe done the right thing.  There are other times where your car is not as fast, but you make the right moves."
   And this was an emotional week all the way around, for most everyone in the NASCAR garage.
    "You know I actually am a pretty emotional guy, you guys just don't always really see it," Kenseth said.

Matt Kenseth, back on top of the NASCAR world (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "I was sitting in the motorhome telling Katie -- it wasn't like a feel sorry for myself or pity party -- but I was telling her 'Man, I'm really getting fed up with not winning, with not being a contender.'
   "It was actually starting to weigh on me more than we thought. 
   "And here we struggled all week, till Saturday. 
    "It's just we haven't been a serious contender for the championship for a few years.
    "We've been able to win a race here or there…but we didn't win any last year.
   "And I don't feel like I'm the best at plate racing. I make mistakes, which is really frustrating.
    "To be able to put it all together, to be able to win the race, is pretty overwhelming."
   During the rain that finally eventually ended the race Kenseth sat alone in his car pondering all this.
    "I just wanted to wait until it was either over or we were going to go race again," Kenseth said of the uncertainty.
   "I didn't want to let my emotions get too high one way or another. 
    "I just kind of wanted to wait till it was over and then go from there.
   "I thought the rain was coming.  Drew said it was coming.  You could see the sky getting darker.  It was sprinkling for a while.
   "Then when I got a run on Elliott (for the lead), I got in a position where he couldn't block it, and I had pretty good momentum. 
   "Kevin saw I had the momentum and hung a left and went behind me.
   "When I cleared him, there were big  raindrops between turns one and two.  I knew it was getting pretty close. 
    "Then they had the accident where they threw the yellow."
   So the SpeedWeeks of Angst is finally over, there's a winner, there are winners, things are happening in NASCAR, and Kenseth says he's glad things are finally rolling.
   "Everybody's tired of watching the news -- the grim news that there's been pretty much all winter," Kenseth said. 
   "Whether you're a sports fan, of football or racing, when that starts, it gives you something else to think about, something else to do. 
   "It's just easy to take stuff for granted when everything is going good all the time.
   "But I thought it was a great race, the stands were really full, and I know everybody's been trying to help out to make it not just more a more enjoyable experience for the fans but also make it more affordable.

    "It feels really good to get the win.  I'm glad we started the season off on a high note."

   Joey Logano didn't make it to the finish...and he wasn't too happy at the less than give-and-take he got in his first Daytona 500 (Photo:Getty Images for NASCAR)


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