Matt Kenseth works his way
past Newman for all-star win
By DAVID POOLE
The Charlotte Observer
In a race supposedly designed to reward aggressive driving, Matt Kenseth - whose competitiveness was called into question as he protected a big lead on the way to the Nextel Cup championship last season - won the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Kenseth slipped his No. 17 Ford right to the rear bumper of Ryan Newman's Dodge in Turn 4 on the 18th lap of the 20-lap final segment. The air of Kenseth's nose caused the rear end of Newman's to wiggle slightly, and Kenseth sped by on the inside.
It was a classic move, done without contact, and it was worth $1 million for Kenseth and his team.
"A million bucks, boys!" Kenseth screamed over his radio as he took the checkered flag.
Newman ran across the grass to Kenseth's car to congratulate the winner as he stopped for the victory celebration at the start-finish line.
The three-segment, 90-lap event came down to a duel between those two.
Kenseth made his first challenge of the fourth lap of the final segment, cutting to the low side off Turn 4 as Dale Earnhardt Jr. tried to go high.
Newman, who had last pitted for tires on a mandatory stop during the first 40-lap segment, fought back with a strong run off Turn 2 and brought the lead back to the line. Kenseth tried again on Lap 13, but again Newman held on.
Finally, with just more than two laps to go, Kenseth made the move work. "He made me work," Kenseth said of Newman. "I think that's as hard as either one of us has drove in a long time. I was shaking there at the end. I don't think I've ever been nervous in a race car since we got our first win here in the 600 (in 2000)."
Newman, who won the all-star race in 2002, said his gamble to stay on old tires just didn't quite work out.
"We had an awesome car," he said. "We ran out of tires at the end, but it was just good racing with Matt. Congratulations to him."
It was Kenseth's first victory in four starts in the all-star race. His best previous finish was third two years ago.
Rusty Wallace was on the pole and got the jump on teammate Newman at the green. After Ricky Craven slid up into the outside wall in turns 1-2 on Lap 4 to bring out the first yellow, but it would not be the last.
On Lap 11, the second lap after the restart, Kurt Busch got into the rear of teammate Greg Biffle's Ford going into Turn 1. Busch bounced off and sideswiped Jimmie Johnson's Chevrolet, and from that point the crash was on.
Before it was over, 12 cars had been damaged - some far more seriously than others. The race was red-flagged while the track was cleaned up, the crews worked on their cars and tempers boiled.
"Kurt Busch has his head up his...whatever," Biffle said of his fellow Roush Racing driver. "I just don't understand. He wrecked us on the straightaway. ...Kurt Busch took out the whole field. If I was (car owner) Jack Roush I don't know what I would do."
Busch said he was trying to push Biffle's car down the straightaway, hoping to help him get past Matt Kenseth.
"My car just lifted him instead of pushing him," Busch said. "I apologize for all of the wrecked race cars on pit road. I have to get myself in check, I guess."
Newman and Tony Stewart had passed Wallace just before the sheet-metal storm hit the track, so they steered clear of that bout of trouble and lined up side-by-side for the double-file restart on Lap 16 after a delay of 15 minutes.
Stewart shot to the lead in Turn 1 on the restart while Gordon, Johnson and Brian Vickers chose that lap to make their green-flag pit stops required in the first segment. Stewart gave up the lead to make his stop on Lap 20, giving the lead back to Newman. He pitted on Lap 25, moving Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the point. He and Terry Labonte came in on Lap 28, completing the cycle.
Stewart shot past Earnhardt Jr. as the No. 8 Chevrolet exited pit road, reclaiming the lead with Kenseth, Mark Martin and Wallace behind him.
Kenseth began closing in as the end of the 40-lap segment neared, but Stewart held on to win it.
The number eight was drawn to determine the number of cars to be inverted for the start of the second segment. That moved Michael Waltrip and Terry Labonte to the front row for the start of that 30-lap run, with Stewart lining up eighth as the green flew again.
Labonte led the first lap of that segment, but in Turn 4 on the second Dale Jarrett got sideways and skidded toward the entrance to pit road. He didn't hit anything, and everyone else avoided him, but the yellow did come out.
Newman and Earnhardt Jr. shot around Labonte on the outside in Turn 4 on Lap 48 once the race restarted, grabbing the top two spots. Stewart, meanwhile, had already clawed his way back up to fourth.
Johnson's bid to join 1991 and 1992 winner Davey Allison as the only back-to-back winners of the all-star event ended when he spun his Chevrolet on Lap 54, ending his night.
"The car is pretty beat up," Johnson said. "When we were in that wreck with the 97, when I came back up on the banking I felt the front end bend. ...It was a handful."
Newman didn't pit, and neither did Stewart. But Earnhardt Jr. and everyone else did - perhaps setting up a pit strategy for the break before the final 20-lap segment.
There were nine laps left in Segment 2 when the green flew again. Newman got a good jump and held off Stewart to keep the lead. Kenseth passed Earnhardt Jr. for third on the final lap of the segment, with Waltrip behind them in fifth.
Newman elected not to pit after winning that segment, so he lined up first for the final dash to the $1 million prize. Elliott Sadler changed just two tires, so he got out second and was on the outside of the front row, with Kenseth and Stewart behind him with the big money on the line.
The weirdness had started early on the evening.
As the field came to the green flag to begin the Nextel Open preliminary, the transmission broke on the Dodge in which Casey Mears was starting on the outside of the front row. Jeremy Mayfield, lined up right behind him, rammed Mears' car and picked its rear wheels completely off the ground.
Mears turned immediately into the outside wall and the pack behind his car begin piling up on the frontstretch. Eleven cars were involved in that chain reaction, which also led to a red flag in that heat.
Sterling Marling came back to win to the Open, passing Jamie McMurray and Jeremy Mayfield as they raced off Turn 4 coming to the white flag, moving Marlin into the main event for the 13th time in his career.
Since Kerry Earnhardt's car had eventually succumbed to the damage he suffered in the early crash, the free pass based on fans vote into what used to be a winner's only race passed down to Ken Schrader, who'd finished ninth in the Open. That put him in the all-star race for the first time since 1995.