Though knocked out of a likely win at Bristol by Kurt Busch, former Cup champMatt Kenseth grabbed the points lead
Walking briskly,Matt Kenseth climbed the steep banking of Turn 3 at Bristol Motor Speedway,nestled into the rolling hills of Tennessee's Thunder Valley, and headed towardthe portal that would lead him out of the track. High above him in the twilighthundreds of fans were loitering in the stands an hour after the finish ofSunday's Food City 500. When one spotted Kenseth leaving the speedway, hehailed the driver with a chant of "You're Number 1!"--which, for thefirst time since Kenseth won the Cup championship in 2003, he now is.
"Our team andour cars are better now than in 2003," said the 33-year-old Kenseth, as hehurried under the grandstand to the parking lot. "We're on a nice littleroll right now."
By finishing thirdat Bristol behind winner Kurt Busch and runner-up Kevin Harvick--two driverscurrently engaged in an old-school NASCAR feud (box)--Kenseth bumped JimmieJohnson from atop in the Nextel Cup point standings. Five races into the 2006season Kenseth holds an eight-point advantage over Kasey Kahne and has a19-point cushion on Johnson. Kenseth appeared to be cruising to Victory Lane onSunday as he led 85 of the final 90 laps, but with four laps remaining Buschused a classic Bristol bump-and-run to bang past Kenseth on the backstraightaway, nearly sending Kenseth's Ford into the wall. Upset at Busch andtrying too hard to make up ground, Kenseth, one of the cleanest racers in thesport, ended up spinning out Jeff Gordon on the last lap, dropping Gordon fromthird to 21st. Kenseth tried to apologize to Gordon on pit road moments afterthe race, but Gordon wasn't in a forgiving mood: He lunged at Kenseth andpushed him backward. It was one of the few times all year that Kenseth has beenknocked off balance at the track.
Last year Kensethand his crew were uncharacteristically inconsistent. They started slowly(finishing 26th or worse in five of the first 10 races), came on strong in themiddle of the summer to narrowly qualify for the Chase, then struggled over thelast two months to wind up seventh in the final standings. Kenseth's crewchief, Robbie Reiser, says he now knows what was wrong last year. "My dadhad cancer, and that took a big toll on both Matt and me," Reiser said lateSunday night.
Kenseth and Reisergrew up racing against each other on the short tracks of Wisconsin. The twoboys were bitter rivals when racing, but their families became close away fromthe track. In 1997 Reiser, who by then was piloting a Busch Series car he ownedwith his father, John, stepped out of the driver's seat to become the crewchief; he turned the wheel over to Kenseth. Three years after that Roush Racingsigned the Wisconsin duo.
John Reiser diedfrom prostate cancer the day before the season finale last year. When Kensethwon at California Speedway earlier this season, the first words out of hismouth in Victory Lane were a tribute to Reiser's dad, thanking him for all thathe'd done for his career. "Last season was the hardest one that Matt and Ihave ever been through together," says Reiser. "But we've had to moveon. We're totally rededicated, and it's showing on the track."
While Kurt Buschmade asphalt angels on the track after winning Sunday's race at frigid Bristol,runner-up Kevin Harvick (right) sat on pit road and said exactly how he feelsabout Busch, with whom he has been bickering since they were rookies in 2001."I hate to see Kurt Busch win," said Harvick. "What awhiner."
Over the yearsHarvick has called Busch an "Opie kind of pansy," an "arrogantpunk" and last Friday said he'd like to "whip his ass." Busch hasnever publicly called Harvick names, but he did use several four-letter wordswhen talking about Harvick over his radio during a race in Atlanta on March20.
Stay tuned. Thenext volley in the Busch-Harvick feud could come this week, as the Cup circuitheads to another rough-and-tumble short track, Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, forSunday's Virginia 500.
JOHN RUSSELL/AP (CARS); JOHN PYLE/ICON SMI (KENSETH)
COMIN'THROUGH - Busch (2) banged past Kenseth (17 and inset) on his way to VictoryLane.
RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (HARVICK)