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Charlotte stunner

Kenseth bests Labonte, Earnhardt Jr. in brilliant battle

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Posted: Monday May 29, 2000 05:30 PM

  Matt Kenseth Matt Kenseth had finished second and third in the Busch Series championship the past two seasons. AP

CONCORD, N.C. (Ticker) -- Last year, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. battled for supremacy on the Busch circuit. The rivalry has continued in NASCAR Winston Cup and Kenseth now has the upper hand.

Kenseth took the lead with 27 laps to go, fought off Bobby Labonte and made his first career Winston Cup win an historic one, taking Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.

Making only his 18th Winston Cup start, Kenseth became the first rookie to win the longest race on the NASCAR circuit. He is the fourth driver to capture his first win at this $3.17 million event and the first since Labonte in 1995.

Driving a Ford Taurus, Kenseth took advantage of a caution with 40 laps to go, pitting with the rest of the leaders and coming out quickly, improving his position. He overtook Labonte on lap 374 and his lead fluctuated between less than two car-lengths and nearly seven-tenths of a second.

After taking the checkered flag, Kenseth did several donuts on the infield grass before cruising a backward victory lap.

Closer Look
Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated the second half of the race, but why was he unable to catch Matt Kenseth in the final sprint? Find out why in this Closer Look. 

"I wasn't confident we had it ," Kenseth said. "I was using the tires pretty hard to keep Bobby back there."

"Matt has just done a great job," said team owner Jack Roush, who added the youngster to his Roush Racing team at the behest of lead driver Mark Martin.

Last year, Earnhardt and Kenseth were the dominant drivers on the Busch circuit, finishing 1-3 in the points standings. But Earnhardt won five races to Kenseth's four and got the jump on him this year as Winston Cup rookies.

In fact, Earnhardt had been the circuit's best driver of late, winning the last two races. After taking the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond and The Winston here last week, he won the pole for this event with a record speed.

The rivalry is a friendly one and after Earnhardt brought home his Chevrolet Monte Carlo fourth -- right behind his legendary father -- he congratulated Kenseth, pouring a bottle of juice over the winner's head.

"I'm happy for him," the younger Earnhardt said. "They were consistent and really deserved it."

Earnhardt Jr. was pretty consistent himself, leading 175 of 400 laps. Kenseth appeared beaten when Earnhardt Jr. overtook him on lap 316 and Labonte bumped him to third less than 20 laps later.

Jerry Nadeau, who began second and dominated the first third of the race, had oil spill from his Chevrolet on lap 360, bringing out a caution that had the front-runners maneuvering for quick pit stops and position.

Jeff Gordon tried to repeat his winning strategy from the 1998 race, taking just two tires instead of four, grabbing the lead and hoping to hold off the field. He was first out of the pits and had the lead on the restart on lap 365 but relinquished it to Labonte three laps later. Gordon finished 10th

Meanwhile, Earnhardt Jr. dropped back to sixth after the pit stops and never really made another serious charge.

"I don't know what we did with that last set of tires," he said.

Six laps after Labonte took the lead, he gave it away as Kenseth blew past him with an inside move. The rookie raced like a seasoned veteran thereafter, dealing Labonte his second straight runner-up finish at this event. By finishing second, Labonte squandered a chance at the "No Bull 5" $1 million bonus.

"You don't even think about it out there," Labonte said.

Robby Gordon used a provisional starting spot and completed a racing doubleheader tonight after starting fourth and finishing sixth in the Indianapolis 500.

However, a rain delay of more than three hours at that event prevented Gordon from starting this race. P.J. Jones started and Gordon eventually replaced him behind the wheel.

This is the first race at Lowe's Motor Speedway since a pedestrian bridge collapsed immediately after The Winston, injuring more than 100 people.

Related information
Jeff Burton, Martin finish 1-2 in Busch event at Lowe's
Day at a Glance: Night racing helps a little
Coca-Cola 600 fans injured slightly in pre-race incident
Elliott first car out of Coca-Cola 600
Notebook: Long replaces Waltrip after rain delay
Coca-Cola 600 Results
Winner Matt Kenseth is very thankful for his opportunity from the Roush Racing team. (129 K)
Kenseth said he is very surprised the car came around because it was running very loose during qualifying. (124 K)
Kenseth is asked about holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr. (167 K)
Kenseth talks about a break going his way after having a bad one in California. (134 K)
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