ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - As the two cars closed hard toward the finish line, even the boys following the leaders felt the adrenaline rush.
Kahne's dramatic charge on Matt Kenseth came up inches short, as the nose of Kenseth's Ford scratched the finish line first to win the Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway yesterday.
"It was a close one," Kenseth said.
The margin was one-hundredth of a second.
Kahne, Jamie McMurray and Sterling Marlin led a parade of Dodges trailing Kenseth, with Earnhardt fifth.
The exhilarating finish was followed by a contentious discussion in the NASCAR trailer, with Dodge team owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates questioning a critical pit stop call that allowed Kenseth to stay on the lead lap.
After Robby Gordon's wreck with 42 laps remaining brought out the final caution, Kenseth and Kahne were already on pit road but were allowed to stay in the front of a slimmed-down lead-lap field despite getting passed by McMurray.
NASCAR ruled that Kahne and Kenseth were in the pits, had completed their pit stops and were rolling on pit road. With the field frozen, McMurray was not allowed to gain position based on NASCAR protocol, even though he passed Kenseth before making his pit stop.
"There was a lot going on in that trailer," said Jack Roush, owner of Kenseth's team. "Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, they were at serious odds with NASCAR over the rule that exists about freezing the field. Anyway, there are hard feelings over that. That probably overshadowed anything else."
Among things lost in the controversy was the steady dominance by Kenseth, the 2003 Winston Cup champion now trying to claim the inaugural Nextel Cup title.
After winning only one race last season - and becoming the poster boy for the change in the system that now determines the points champion - Kenseth led 259 of 393 laps. The victory ended a 34-race winless streak, dating back to Las Vegas in 2003.
"It feels great to come here and be able to win right out of the box and lead all those laps," Kenseth said. "It feels good to do that because obviously some people have said that we can't lead laps and win races and we just finish seventh every week. It was great to go dominate the way we did."
No one would catch Kenseth after the controversial final pit stop, when the lead lap had dwindled to nine cars, with Kahne, McMurray, Sterling Marlin and Earnhardt following Kenseth's lead.
He consistently held off Kahne's intermittent runs, the last of which came off Turn 4 on the final lap. "I looked down right before we got there and seen his nose was almost up to mine," Kenseth said. "And I just turned right to get away from him because I could feel the air from his car slowing my car down."
Kahne worked the inside lane, his Dodge appearing to have enough muscle to edge Kenseth's Ford at the finish.
For a few seconds, Kahne - a Nextel Cup rookie - wasn't sure who won until he heard his spotter call out "17/9," citing Kenseth's race number first.
"I didn't know what to say," Kahne said. "They were talking on the radio. I was kind of quiet. I waited until I heard what was going on to decide how happy to be."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.