Elliott takes checkered flag

Kenseth wraps up series title

48-year-old veteran claims 44th victory of his career

Auto Racing

November 10, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - Bill Elliott, a 48-year-old veteran with one of the greatest driving resumes in stock-car racing history, and Matt Kenseth, a 31-year-old driver from Wisconsin emerging as a star in NASCAR's new generation, shared a day in the sun yesterday at North Carolina Speedway.

Elliott won the Pop Secret 400, the final fall race to be held at this 1.017-mile track, holding off Jimmie Johnson over the final 75 laps to score the 44th victory of his Winston Cup career.

Kenseth, meanwhile, finished fourth in the race to wrap up the 2003 Winston Cup championship one race short of season's end. He came into the day needing a seventh place to wrap things up and fought his way into position to do that easily by the checkered flag.

A dual celebration followed.

In victory lane, it was Elliott and his Evernham Motorsports team taking their bows. Less than 100 yards away, at the track's start-finish line, Kenseth and his team were breathing a collective sigh of relief after wrapping up a title they'd had pretty much in hand all season.

"It will take awhile for this to sink in," the understated Kenseth said immediately after following his Roush Racing crew around the track for a celebratory lap.

He joined Jack Roush and Mark Martin, his team's co-owners, in posing with the final Winston Cup trophy to be presented in NASCAR's top series. Nextel takes over at title sponsor in 2004.

Over in victory lane, Elliott was joining his team owner, Ray Evernham, in marking that team's first victory of the 2003 season. It completed a big weekend for that operation, as Elliott's crew had also won Saturday's pit crew contest and teammate Jeremy Mayfield finished third behind Elliott and Johnson in the race.

It also capped a second-half resurgence for Evernham's teams. Elliot has eight top-10 finishes in the past 16 races and Mayfield has seven in the past 12.

"He's getting older and I was getting ready to get fired, so we decided we'd better turn it up a notch," Mayfield joked when asked about the resurgence.

Indeed, Mayfield's future with the team had been in question until just a few weeks ago, when he turned aside other offers and re-signed to stay where he is. Questions remain about Elliott's future - will he retire or run only a limited schedule next year? - but they will have to wait to be answered.

"We still have some decisions we have to make," said Elliott, who became just the fifth driver in Cup history to win a race after celebrating his 48th birthday, joining Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, Morgan Shepherd and Harry Gant on that list.

Ryan Newman started first and led the first 47 laps, despite several challenges from Mayfield. On Lap 48, it was Ward Burton who finally managed to get around Newman to grab the top spot in the No. 0 Chevrolet.

Several cars that were losing ground in the early going had made pit stops before the first yellow, which came on Lap 76 for Derrike Cope's spin on the backstretch. The leaders hadn't been in, however, and it was Mayfield who won the race off pit road ahead of Burton and rookie Jamie McMurray.

The next yellow came on Lap 84 after Newman's Dodge and Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet bounced off each other as they raced down the front stretch on the previous lap. Gordon slid up out of the low groove in turns 1 and 2 and hit Newman, spinning the No. 12 out.

NASCAR brought Gordon's Chevrolet to pit road and held him for a one-lap "rough driving" penalty, dropping the No. 24 a lap down.

Elliott, making his 48th career Cup start at the track where he made his first career start in 1976, then took the lead for the first time on Lap 186 after starting at the rear of the field after his team made an engine change on Friday.

Elliott pulled away to a lead of more than five seconds, and he was still out front on Lap 242 when Mark Martin's engine let go in Turn 1. Behind him on the track, Kenseth was coming in for a pit stop at that moment. When he saw the yellow, he drove back onto the track to keep from getting trapped a lap down.

Because he was past a "commitment line" marking the start of the pit lane, however, Kenseth had to start at the end of the longest line of traffic on the restart. It wasn't a costly sanction, however, since Kenseth was one of only 13 cars left on the lead lap by that turn of events - and six of those were trapped at the tail end of that lap.

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