DOVER, DEL. -- With 53 laps to go yesterday in NASCAR's Neighborhood Excellence 400, Matt Kenseth's crew chief, Robbie Reiser , told his driver it was time to make a pit stop. You need fresh tires, Reiser said over the radio as the yellow caution flag went up. Get in here. Now.
Kenseth, who was running fifth at the time, took a look at the four drivers front of him: Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton . None of them was going in for tires. Kenseth did some quick calculations in his head. If he pitted, he could probably make up some ground, but not all of it. At best, he'd end up second or third.
But if he stayed on the track, remained calm, trusted his race car and his instincts, he thought he could win. It wasn't a tough call, in Kenseth's opinion. He didn't say anything, didn't try to argue with his crew chief or plead his case. He just put his foot on the gas and kept on racing.
"When I looked over at [Reiser] on the front stretch and saw the look on his face, I knew I'd better finish pretty good or it was going to be a long couple months." Kenseth said.
With methodic precision, Kenseth reeled in the lead drivers one by one down the stretch - passing McMurray, his Roush Racing teammate , with three laps to go - and won his second Nextel Cup race of the year, the 12th win of his career . McMurray finished second, Harvick third .
"It was the kind of race that you dream about the finish." Kenseth said. "Anytime you win at this level, it's a great feeling, but when you battle down to the last lap, it's great. Everything kind of went right for us, even when a couple things went wrong."
As for Reiser, who has been Kenseth's crew chief and good friend since 1999, he said he was OK, in the end, with being over ruled.
"Thank God he won the race, though, or we'd probably be in the trailer fighting right now." Reiser said jokingly.
The victory, which was the first time in seven races at Dover that a driver won after starting outside the top 10 (19th), also helped Kenseth cut Jimmie Johnson's overall Nextel Cup points lead to 74 . It wasn't a bad day for Johnson, however. He finished an impressive and unlikely sixth , despite battling his way through traffic all day and narrowly avoiding a crash early in the race after starting 42nd .
"It was a lot of hard work and a lot of frustration." said Johnson, who finished in the top 10 for the 10th time in 13 races . "We didn't have the speed at the beginning of the race, and we had to adjust. But once we got the car a little more stable and underneath me, I could race. I wish it was a 500-mile race because it may have been a victory."
The day was both disappointing and encouraging for McMurray, who led for 95 laps and looked as if he might hang on for his first win since 2002 .
"You're very disappointed, especially to come that close." said McMurray, who finished in the top 10 for the second straight week . "Three or four laps from the end and when Matt passed me, I lost all my momentum. But we've come a long ways already in the last 15 races. For our race team, we were trying to take a 25th-place car at the beginning of the year and just try to get it in the top 10. When you're able to compete for a win, that's a big deal for us right now."
Kenseth, however, will head to next week's race at Pocono Raceway with the biggest confidence boost. A year ago, after 13 races, he was outside the top 20 in points. This year, he's second . And though Kenseth has always ranked Dover as one of his favorite tracks, finishing in the top 10 here seven times in 14 races coming in, he wanted to try a little reverse psychology this year to see if it might help him get a win. He previous best finish was second in 2000.
"Every year, when we get here, me and [my wife] Katie drive the rental car over the track and I look at the bank and I always tell her how cool it is." Kenseth said. ""Isn't this awesome? I love coming here, it's so great." We drove in this time and I said, "Man I hate this place. I can't wait to get out of here." I was joking of course, but that's really what the difference was."
Note Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller spent the day hanging out in Johnson's pit. Boller, who met Johnson through friends in California, said he's becoming a NASCAR fan. "Jimmie is a great guy." Boller said. "It's just an awesome sport. I try to catch it every time it's close to Baltimore."