Commentary

Matt Kenseth an improbable winner

Updated: May 15, 2011, 7:39 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DOVER, Del. -- Sprint Cup races often are like the weather: You expect one thing and get another.

That's the way it was on Sunday at Dover International Speedway.

The ugly, nasty, rainy day that was forecast to possibly delay this event to Monday never came -- outside of one brief sprinkle -- and the classic battle between Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson for the victory never happened.

Instead, the day ended with sunshine and mostly blue skies overhead and Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane.

Go figure.

Not that anybody was disappointed with the weatherman being wrong. But few expected the teams of Edwards and Johnson -- and let's throw Clint Bowyer into the mix -- to be so off on their call for four tires when they hit pit road for the final time with 38 laps remaining.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kenseth, Mark Martin
Geoff Burke/NASCAR/Getty ImagesWhile FedEx 400 winner Matt Kenseth, right, took only two tires on the final pit stop, runner-up Mark Martin didn't pit at all.

That decision, coupled with the decision of second-place finisher Mark Martin not to pit at all while Kenseth and five others took only two tires, turned the finish seemingly upside down for the second straight week. (Regan Smith won at Darlington last weekend because he stayed out in the closing laps.)

"I guess in our minds we didn't think that would take place, so many guys taking two tires," said Johnson, who finished ninth after winning three of the previous four races here and leading 207 of 400 laps on Sunday.

Johnson was frustrated. So were most of those who expected to be a factor but weren't.

"Son of a b----," radioed Bowyer, who had almost a half-second lead over Edwards when Juan Pablo Montoya spun out to bring the final caution with 40 laps remaining, when he crossed the line in sixth. "Two tires got us."

Replied crew chief Gil Martin, "Sorry to let you down, dammit."

Said Bowyer's team owner, Richard Childress, "F------ track position."

After two weeks of fun-filled, emotion-packed drama at Richmond and Darlington, this seemed anticlimactic. But you can't have drama and great finishes every weekend, and you can't take anything away from Kenseth for all but guaranteeing a spot in the Chase with his second win in the past five races.

And if you do, expect team owner Jack Roush to get a bit terse, as he did when asked if anybody could have touched Bowyer, Edwards or Johnson if it weren't for the final caution.

"If anybody was watching lap trackers, Matt drove from 23rd to the top five," Roush said. "As hard as it is to pass, as hard as it is to deal with the Car of Tomorrow, when I saw that I thought the 17 was equal of the cars running up front.

"They didn't back into this thing. They deserved to be there."

And, Kenseth correctly reminded us, "Nobody had anything for [Edwards] last week if caution hadn't come out."

Edwards appeared to be the strongest among Roush's cars again on Sunday. He led 117 laps and was closing on Bowyer when the final caution flew. He and Johnson put on some of the best side-by-side racing of the day between laps 305 and 332. At times it looked like a sneak preview to the Chase.

But in the end, it was Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig who made the right call. Well, they did sort of back into that.

When I was on the jack I asked if he was sure we didn't want to try two [tires], and he said to put on two. It was really Jimmy's call and just a suggestion by me.

-- Matt Kenseth

Kenseth originally wanted to stay out. Fennig wanted to pit. As Kenseth headed down pit road he suggested a compromise: two tires.

"When I was on the jack I asked if he was sure we didn't want to try two, and he said to put on two," Kenseth said. "It was really Jimmy's call and just a suggestion by me."

It was a great suggestion, particularly when track position was so important with rubber buildup causing havoc on restarts. Kenseth got so much of the marble-like particles on his tires during one restart that he slipped from third to eighth in less than two laps.

"They didn't really get the rubber off the track before the restarts," Kenseth said. "It stuck on the bottom and you'd get stuff on the tires."

Still, with 35 laps to go on the final restart, the general consensus was four tires would win out.

"I thought we would be able to march up through there, and I thought the race would be between Clint and I," said Edwards, who extended his points lead over Johnson to 24 heading into the All-Star weekend with his seventh-place finish. "I really felt we were going to have something."

Edwards, like the weatherman, was wrong.

But that often happens in racing, where seldom do we see the driver who leads the most laps take the checkered. That's happened only three times -- Jeff Gordon at Phoenix, Kenseth at Texas and Kyle Busch at Richmond -- in 11 races.

That's why it would be a mistake to pin the favorite role on any driver this early. The champion could come out of any driver in the top 10 to 15, even though it's hard to pick against five-time defending champion Johnson.

It could be Kenseth, who moved up four spots to sixth in the standings after going through a three-race stretch in which he looked average at best with finishes of 36th, 21st and 25th.

It could be Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was happy with a 12th-place finish that kept him fourth in points even though the two-tire gamble didn't pay off for his team.

"I felt good because we were running good," said Earnhardt, who was third on the final restart. "I saw that we were competitive. We raced around some guys that are going to make the Chase. It was a roll of the dice there at the end with the adjustments and the two tires.

"It could have gone either way. We deserved to be eighth to 12th today. We'll take it."

And Kenseth will take the victory.

It may lead to another title.

Just like the weather on Sunday, you never know.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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