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Right place: Kenseth out front as rain falls

- dpoole@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - When you're growing up in Wisconsin, Matt Kenseth said Sunday, "Daytona seems like it's a long, long way away."

But even though he'd made it here to race at Daytona International Raceway many times before this year's Daytona 500, even on the eve of this year's first Sprint Cup race he said Victory Lane still felt distant.

"I was in the motor home yesterday with (wife) Katie," Kenseth said after winning a race shortened from 200 to 152 laps by rain. "It wasn't like a pity party or anything, but I was telling her that I was getting pretty fed up of not winning and being a contender for championships.

"...And I felt like I was always making mistakes in plate races, making the wrong moves sometimes and not getting my car in the right place."

A little more than 24 hours later, Kenseth found himself with the kind of chance he'd been waiting for. This time, he got it right.

Kenseth drove to the low side to pass Elliott Sadler for the lead on Lap 146, clearing Sadler's Dodge with drafting help from Kevin Harvick, and took the lead at what turned out to be the perfect moment.

Almost as soon as he swept into the top spot, Kenseth said, raindrops began splattering onto the windshield of his No. 17 Ford. Within a moment, Aric Alimorla's car was spinning in traffic behind him and the yellow flag was out.

Before racing could resume, the rain intensified and NASCAR brought the cars to pit road under a red flag. Fittingly, it was 17 minutes later that the race was declared over and Kenseth the winner of the 51st Daytona 500.

Kenseth, known for being so even-tempered that he was portrayed as a robot in a commercial a few years back, was a wreck. A happy wreck.

"I'm crying like a baby," he said. "It's just unbelievable."

Kenseth had never finished better than ninth in nine Daytona 500 starts, and he had wrecked cars in the Budweiser Shootout and his 150-mile qualifying race on Thursday. That sent him to the back of the field for the start of Sunday's race, but it also got him into a backup car that he actually found some comfort with in Saturday's final practice.

Still, after a winless 2008 season, Kenseth said he never dreamed he'd be celebrating his first Daytona 500 victory - and team owner Jack Roush's first in the event. It was also the first victory for Drew Blickensderfer, working his first race as a Cup crew chief.

Then again, very little turned out as it appeared it might on this day in Daytona.

Lyle Busch led 88 of the first 120 laps and it seemed that his No. 18 Toyota was clearly the class of the field. Kenseth, though, had fought back from the week's travails and was actually running right behind Busch on Lap 124 when this day took its most dramatic turn.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had fought back from missing his pit stall earlier in the race, went a lap down after stopping outside his pit box just before that restart. He was in the inside line and battling with Brian Vickers to be the first driver a lap down in case another yellow flew. Vickers moved down to block Earnhardt's advance and Earnhardt went below the yellow line going into Turn 1. Earnhardt came back up and got into Vickers' car, starting a wreck that took out Busch as well as several other potential winners.

Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion, said he thought that his car was the best left standing at that point. But Sadler had the lead, thanks to the fact that he'd been on pit road when the yellow came out and assumed the lead after those who hadn't pitted under green came in.

Sadler, who is pretty much Kenseth's emotional opposite, knew there was rain coming. He thought under a previous yellow that the race might be called with him in front and said he let himself think about what that might mean.

"I had a lot of cool stuff going through my head," Sadler said.

But the green did come back out on Lap 143 and Sadler had another kind of storm gathering behind him. Harvick bumped past Reed Sorenson in the draft and got lined up behind Kenseth, and Sadler saw them coming.

"I had to make a choice, to let him to the outside of me or under me," Sadler said. "I decided to let him to go under me and I hoped I could side-draft a little bit.

"They had such a good head of steam. I can play that back in my head a million times...but it's not going to change the outcome. I needed to do a better job. ...It's hard to swallow. I had a chance to win it and just made one mistake.

"...To be half a lap short of being the Daytona 500 champion is very emotional."

Harvick, who got a drafting push on the final lap from Kenseth when he won this race in a photo finish over Mark Martin in 2007, wound up second this time with AJ Allmendinger - who nearly replaced Sadler in the No. 19 Dodges in the offseason – third.

Clint Bowyer came through in fourth with Sadler winding up fifth.

"This will be a popular win in the garage," Harvick said. "Matt is a stand-up person and I think there are a lot of us who can kind of relate to him being kept a little out of the spotlight sometimes. It seems like he could win seven or eight races in a year and never receive any credit.

"He's a champion. And now he's a Daytona 500 champion."

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