Unscathed Kenseth wins wild Busch opener
Associated Press


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When the cars finally stopped crashing, barrel-rolling and catching fire, Matt Kenseth got the confidence boost he needed for his step up to the big time.

Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth takes the checkered flag by the narrowest of margins.

Kenseth overcame four wrecks and the veteran savvy of Terry Labonte on Saturday to win the NAPA Auto Parts 300, the season-opening race on the Busch series.

A Winston Cup rookie making his Daytona 500 debut Sunday, Kenseth will pare down his Busch schedule as he begins a full season in NASCAR's top series. But before that, he delivered a potent parting shot on the circuit that helped him build his reputation.

"I never thought I'd win a restrictor-plate race, I never felt like I was very good at drafting," said Kenseth, who finished third last year in the Busch series and second in 1998. "When I think of Daytona, I think of Dale Earnhardt. So, to have my name in the record book at Daytona as winning a race, it's real, real special."

Kenseth finished 0.153 seconds -- about two car lengths -- ahead of Joe Nemechek, who rallied from ninth to second place over the final three laps of the 120-lap race.

After leading laps 107-118, Labonte lost the lead. The two-time Winston Cup champion was hurt by his decision to skip a tire change during the caution period following the last of four spectacular crashes. Nobody was seriously injured.

"It was my call to stay out there on the old tires," Labonte said. "I won in Talladega last year because I put on four tires. I lost this one because I didn't."

The accidents provided yet more highlight-reel footage of what has been an especially rough-and-tumble week at stock-car racing's most storied track.

On Friday, a 13-truck wreck sent flames into the crowd and two drivers and five fans to the hospital during the Craftsman Truck Series' debut on the 2½-mile Daytona oval.

When the cars took over, they offered quite a show, as well.

"It's probably the wildest race I've ever been in in my life," Nemechek said. "People were making moves. You never knew what was going to happen."

The final wreck may have been the most spectacular.

Nudged in the back by a pair of cars on lap 102, Michael Waltrip's Chevrolet flipped on its roof and barrel-rolled six times into the apron near the end of the front straightaway.

His roof crumpled and the car smashed, Waltrip unfastened the netting on the window and, amazingly, stepped out appearing unscathed.

"I'm a big guy, so I just hung onto the steering wheel and ducked my head," Waltrip said. "At first it wasn't bad. Then, it started hitting the ground pretty good. Thank the Lord, I'm fine. I'm not even hurt."

That wreck brought on the big decisions.

It was Labonte's call to stay out and Kenseth's choice to take four tires instead of two that made the difference once the green flag came out for the final 13 laps.

"It really wasn't much of a decision," Kenseth said. "If I didn't take the tires and it stayed green, we were going to finish 15th."

Instead, he worked his way up from 12th after the restart. Then, with 1½ laps to go, Kenseth got drafting help from rookie Jay Sauter and moved inside to pass Labonte, who was trying to hold off Nemechek up high.

Sauter finished fourth, followed by fellow rookie Kevin Harvick.

Nemechek started 26th after NASCAR disallowed his top qualifying time because he violated weight displacement rules during the run.

"Front Row Joe" fell almost a complete lap behind after the second caution period, but worked his way back after the third accident, a nine-car wreck on lap 62 in which pole-sitter Hut Stricklin's engine caught fire.

Chad Chaffin's car spun between turns 1 and 2, then got hit three times, the last time by Stricklin, who had flames shooting from his engine.

Also eliminated by that crash was Ron Hornaday, who started second and was running near the front in the car Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove to Busch titles the last two years.

Another key contender, Jeff Green, got knocked out in the day's first wreck. In that one, Bobby Hamilton Jr. nudged Green's car on lap 14, causing it to flip onto its roof, then flip back before skidding into the apron on the frontstretch.

"It was totally my fault," said Green, who finished second in the series last year. "I took a chance I shouldn't have taken with the company I was around and I didn't get away with it."

Kenseth earned $98,750 for the victory in the series' richest race. The total purse was $1.4 million.

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