Kenseth scores second Cup win of '04

LAS VEGAS -- Look who's leading the NASCAR Nextel Cup points
-- again.

Matt Kenseth came up with a dominating performance Sunday at Las
Vegas Motor Speedway, winning his second straight race and moving
atop the standings, That's where he was perched for the final 33
races of 2003 on the way to the Cup title.

"It's fun," Kenseth said after leading a race-high 123 of 267
laps in winning the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 for the second straight
year. "We won only one race last year and have come out of the box
this year.

"It's been a fun two weeks, the most fun I've had in a race car
in my life."

Criticized last season for winning the series title with boring
consistency and only the one victory, Kenseth is answering his
critics. He's off to a great start in 2004, also winning Feb. 22 at
Rockingham after finishing ninth in the season-opening Daytona 500.

"I've learned it's always something," Kenseth said, shaking
his head. "It would be hard for anybody to argue that we didn't
have a dominant car at Rockingham, and all you saw in the headlines
was that the caution didn't fall right, that we weren't on the lead
lap and we shouldn't have won.

"But I'd rather have 'em talking about me because we're doing
so good than something else, I guess," Kenseth added, grinning.

At Rockingham, Kenseth held off a challenge from rookie Kasey Kahne, winning by inches. This time, there was no one to challenge
Kenseth after he moved past Kevin Harvick on lap 230 to regain the
lead for the fourth and final time.

The 23-year-old Kahne, in only his third Cup start since
replacing longtime NASCAR star Bill Elliott in the No. 9 Dodge,
wound up second again. He inherited the runner-up spot five laps
from the end when Harvick ran out of gas and coasted to the pits.
Harvick finished 21st.

Kahne, who started from the pole, crossed the finish line 3.426
seconds -- about half a straightaway -- behind Kenseth's No 17 Ford.

"I never expected this," said Kahne, who got off to an

inauspicious start at Daytona, finishing 41st with an engine
failure. "I've never been in such a good situation.

"To run second in these races is fine with me right now. We
want to win and we're going to win sometime."

Tony Stewart finished third, followed by Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Elliott Sadler, Casey Mears, Kurt Busch and Rusty Wallace.

The race was to be the first true test of the new combination of
a shorter rear spoiler and softer tires, intended by NASCAR to make
racing more exciting by allowing more passing.

This race didn't look much different than the previous six on
the 1½-mile Las Vegas oval, with mostly single-file racing. There
were 18 lead changes among 10 drivers, but many of them came during
pit stop sequences and had nothing to do with passing on the track.

Still, most of the drivers liked the changes.

Kenseth was one of them, although he pointed out the new
combination was a little hard to get used to.

"You used to be able to drive way in there with the tire that
you couldn't hurt and a big spoiler, and it's hard to get yourself
to lift enough so you don't abuse your tires and not drive in too
hard," he said.

"The tire that Goodyear brought has made this racing fun
again," Stewart said. "You can't go out and just run real hard.
That's how we lost second to Kasey Kahne. I busted the tires trying to get by Harvick."

Kenseth appeared to have the fastest car all day. Several times,
the winner built leads of up to four seconds before caution flags
erased the margin.

He was leading Stewart by about 20 car lengths when Kevin
Lepage's blown engine dumped oil on the track on lap 183. The
leaders made their final pit stops on lap 184 and an
uncharacteristic slow stop by his Roush Racing crew left Kenseth
seventh for the restart on lap 193, with Harvick in the lead.

"If there was ever a time to have a bad one, that was the time
to get a little behind," Kenseth said of the slow stop. "We
actually adjusted the car a little bit and made it better."

Once the green flag flew, Kenseth set sail after the leaders. He
gained two positions on the first two laps, was third on lap 209
and passed Stewart for second on lap 221.

He then cut into Harvick's lead on every lap and pulled
alongside the leader coming off turn four on lap 230. The two
crossed the finish line with Kenseth ahead by the nose of his car.

But by the time they reached turn one, Kenseth was several
car-lengths ahead.

The victory was the eighth of Kenseth's Cup career and vaulted
him into the series lead one race earlier than he took the top spot
for good in 2003. He leads Stewart by 88 points going to the next
race at Atlanta.

Sunday's race was disastrous for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who came
here leading the points after winning the Daytona 500 and finishing
fifth at Rockingham. Earnhardt struggled throughout the day,
spending considerable time in the garage area before coming back
out to salvage 35th place. Earnhardt fell to seventh, 125 points
behind Kenseth.

The win also continued the dominance of Jack Roush's team at Las
Vegas; his cars have won five of the seven races.