Kenseth clinches Winston Cup

Matt Kenseth has clinched the NASCAR Winston Cup after finishing fourth in the penultimate round of the season at Rockingham in North Carolina. Veteran racer Bill Elliott won the race in his Dodge

Kenseth clinches Winston Cup

Kenseth clinched the title in the Pop Secret 400 and heads to the finale at Homestead next week with a 226-point lead over nearest challenger Jimmie Johnson, who gave it all he had Sunday in finishing second.

Kenseth, in just his fourth year in Winston Cup (he was 2000 rookie of the year), thus concluded what had seemed foregone in September, when he held a 436-point lead over second-place. Consecutive calamities at Talladega and Kansas cut his lead almost in half and put the outcome somewhat in doubt, but Kenseth and the Robbie Reiser-led No. 17 team steadied down the stretch, running the past five races with no worse than a 13th-place finish.

"It actually added pressure because I didn't want to be the guy that goes in the record book that had that big of a lead and blew it," he admitted. "I think there's always pressure until it's over because anything can happen at any time. I know one thing, I feel a lot lighter today. I feel like the world has lifted off my shoulders somewhat."

The championship was sweeter still to long-suffering owner Jack Roush, who has been thwarted, frustrated and disappointed in half-a-dozen near-misses since his entry into NASCAR in 1988. He has finished second four times with Mark Martin, losing twice under dubious circumstances.

"Things certainly don't look as dark to me today as they have the days preceding and the years preceding," said Roush. "We've come close with Mark four times, and this would have been once with Matt if we weren't able to close the deal.

"I'm not going to go back and revisit the frustrations we've had in the past. I'm very happy that whatever I had going against me, whether it was between my ears or a dark cloud hanging over me, I didn't pass that on to Matt this year. I'm just glad to be through with that and hope we don't have to go back there again."

It didn't look real good for Kenseth at the start. He qualified 23rd and lingered in that neighbourhood for 60 laps, falling as low as 30th. The team, noted for its poise and coolness, needed more than half the afternoon to whip the car into shape, and Kenseth, as usual, made no mistakes on the track.

Kenseth had two close calls, risking going a lap down twice when caution came out in the middle of green-flag stops. He actually was at the entry to pit road when yellow flew for team-mate Martin's engine failure on Lap 242, but he had the presence to veer back on the track.

Challenger Dale Earnhardt Jr. was caught thus, having pitted under green on Lap 239. Earnhardt went nearly a lap down and never caught up. That left only Johnson, who battled race winner Bill Elliott to the wire, then congratulated Kenseth on a job well done.

"I takes everything to come into play, and Matt withstood the mental challenge," Johnson said. "His whole team did. He doesn't have to read any more articles or hear any more questions. He can just go race."

Kenseth broke into the top-five on Lap 268, then passed Jeremy Mayfield for fourth on Lap 311. He got as high as third with a fast pit stop under caution on Lap 378, although Mayfield took that spot away with four to go. By then, it didn't matter.

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