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Kenseth surprised by second NASCAR victory

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) _ Matt Kenseth was waiting for the inevitable defeat, and this time, it didn't happen.

After 59 races and a year and a half without a victory, what had seemed like a certain victory for the Roush Racing driver was slipping away.

But then he suddenly turned another bitter defeat into a win in the Subway 400 on Sunday at North Carolina Speedway.

``I always feel like things don't go my way,'' Kenseth said with a grin.

Even in victory, though, all was not completely right for the 29-year-old racer.

Hours after the race, NASCAR inspectors found Kenseth's car was one-quarter inch too low. NASCAR was expected to penalize the Roush team on Monday.

In a similar situation last October in Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winning car was one-quarter inch too low, and his team was fined $25,000, but kept its victory and the championship points.

Through most of Sunday's race, Kenseth's No. 17 Ford was the car to beat.

After starting 25th, he worked steadily toward the front on the 1.017-mile oval and took the lead for the first time on lap 147 of the 393-lap event. He wound up leading a race-high 152 laps, including the final seven.

After getting up front, his crew, which won the annual pit contest here last November with a record time, kept getting him there after almost every stop.

On an abrasive track where tire management usually determines the winner, Kenseth and all but one of the other contenders made a final stop for fresh rubber after the eighth of nine caution flags flew on lap 365 following Mike Skinner's blown engine.

Pole-winner Ricky Craven, who led the first 104 laps before falling back into the pack, remained on the track, taking a chance with slightly worn tires to regain the lead.

Kenseth beat everyone else back onto the track again and was right behind Craven's Ford. This time, though, Kenseth messed up the restart and fell to fourth with the race nearing its finish.

``Honestly, at that point I felt my chances were about zero,'' he said. ``My car was real tight on that set of tires for some reason and I was behind people and didn't have the air on the nose. I was having a real hard time turning, so I didn't feel good about it at all.''

Craven's tires started to give up and he slipped back, leaving Kenseth still trailing Sterling Marlin and Bobby Labonte as the trio started lap 386.

That's when Kenseth was the beneficiary of what he called ``a miracle.''

Marlin and Labonte, who had been running well in the high groove on the track, ran through a patch of oil high on the banking in turns three and four.

``I didn't really notice it,'' Kenseth said. ``As I think back on it, I definitely saw (Marlin) slow down and I definitely saw the track was dark up there, but I always feel like things don't go my way.

``I was just lucky enough to be way down on the bottom where there wasn't oil. This time, we were in the right place at the right time.''

Kenseth zipped from third to first between the third turn and the first turn, coming around in the lead on lap 387. The next time around, NASCAR flew the final caution flag, and that's the way the race ended.

Even that went Kenseth's way on Sunday.

A week earlier, near the end of the Daytona 500, NASCAR stopped the race with a red flag to clean up the track after a big crash to assure that its biggest event would finish with green flag racing.

This time, NASCAR let the pace car stay out, and Kenseth drove slowly across the finish line ahead of Marlin, Labonte, Tony Stewart and Craven.

``There wasn't enough time to red flag it and finish under green,'' explained NASCAR president Mike Helton.

The decision infuriated Marlin's Chip Ganassi Racing crew, which went to NASCAR earlier this week for an explanation on when races will and won't be stopped.

``Whoever is running the show up there sometimes decides to do it and sometimes they don't,'' Marlin said. ``If it had ended like this last week, we would have won the race, but I guess that's racing.

``I think all the drivers would like to see some kind of firm deal where we either stop it with five to go, or we run it with five to go, or we get out of the car and run around.'' he said with a laugh.

Marlin was denied a shot at winning Daytona when the race was halted with five laps to go. Marlin was the leader at the time, but had some damage to his fender that had to be fixed to give him a chance to win the race.

Because action was stopped, Marlin got out of his car on the track and tried to fix the damage. He was penalized for that and sent to the back of the field, working his way back to an eighth-place finish.

Marlin's team said that if NASCAR finished the Daytona 500 under yellow, he would have won because he was the leader at the time. And if NASCAR had finished Sunday's race with a shootout the way they did in Daytona, he at least would have had a chance.

Jack Roush, Kenseth's car owner and often one of NASCAR's strongest critics, said, ``They get it right much more than they get it wrong and I was waiting to see which way it would go. Whichever call they made, I was sure it would be consistent and it would be OK.

``Having said that, nobody looks forward to having crashes on the last lap or two and it would have been a recipe for a big crash had we had a white flag followed by a checkered.''

Kenseth said a red flag probably wouldn't have changed the outcome.

``It would have been a little challenging, but I felt pretty good about being back in front,'' he said. ``I felt like when I was in front of those guys on fresh tires I could probably drive away from them and hold them off.''
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