Kenseth wins Coca-Cola 600

Kenseth gets record win in Charlotte by Jon McClintock 5.29.00

Kenseth wins Coca-Cola 600

In the end, the Coke-600 winner was a first-timer AND a first-ever rookie winner. That means Bobby Labonte didn't win the Winston "No Bull Million"...and Dale Earnhardt Jr is actually a human.

Matt Kenseth picked one of NASCAR's most prestigious events - its longest race - to show he's worthy of Roush Racing, winning the annual Memorial Day event after slumbering in the field for over 500 miles. It was only his 18th Winston Cup start.

Labonte, Dale Earnhardt, Earnhardt Jr and Dale Jarrett rounded out the exhausted top five in a rain-interrupted nail-biter.

Kenseth, a 28 year old Wisconsin native, celebrated his breakthrough by tearing up the infield grass, doing burnout's at the starter's stand and a "Polish Victory Lap" after passing the best in the business with 25 to go and holding them off.

"I was using the tires up trying to keep Bobby behind me," said a stunned young man in Victory Lane. "I wasn't sure if Labonte had anything left for me or not."

Joining the former Busch Series standout in celebration was mentor and teammate, Mark Martin, and chief rookie competitor Earnhardt Junior.

"This is fantastic, this is great," said Martin. "Man, he's earned it and they're going to win a bunch more of them."

"Matt has just done a great job, and Mark identified Matt as a guy who could do it all," added Junior, who led 175 of 400 laps and seemed the sure-fire winner for most of the race. "Matt's guys were consistent and he deserved to win."

Labonte, a principal contender for the 2000 points championship, denied thoughts of winning - and losing AGAIN - the special bonus money for which five drivers were eligible. He finished second for the third time he was in contention.

"I don't even think of that anymore," said the glum Texan who rocketed to the front on the last restart. "It seemed that our car ran better after dark, but Matt's....well, his ran better than us."

The first 20% of the race went by in a blink, with just a pair of no-contact spins slowing a torrid pace set first by Earnhardt, Jr and a dominant Jerry Nadeau. How fast? Jimmy Spencer was down a lap after 30 circuits. One casualty of the pace - Bill Elliott - retired with a blown engine before 100 laps.

"Something stripped the teeth off the oil pump belt and lost oil pressure and that's it," said Elliott. "I backed off when I saw the oil pressure go down, but the McDonald's car was pretty decent. I was kind of just biding my time waiting until darkness came and try to get the car worked out from that point."

Unlike most recent races, the field's first chance to pit was during green flag racing between laps 55-65. Nadeau survived the initial shuffling but Papa Earnhardt, Jeremy Mayfield, Tony Stewart and Jarrett were getting racy. All visited the front before Mike Bliss blew a tire and opened up the third round of pit stops on lap 132.

A harmless Steve Park spin on lap 81 was a blessing for John Andretti. The Petty driver discovered in practice that ribs injured in The Winston were unbearably sore, and turned his seat over to a relief driver.

"I think we'll be alright," said Andretti. "I'm a little bit smaller than (relief driver) Tim (Fedewa). With the steering wheel position and everything else, it just made it a little bit harder. Then the way the car started with the sun out and everything, it was real loose up off the corner. We made a change during the pit stop. But it gets to the point where you can't wrestle the car and you can't run as hard as you need to run."

A two-tire strategy put Mike Skinner out front on the lap 134 restart, but Earnhardt The Senior demonstrated why 4-fresh are better, snatching the lead in half a lap and trailing Junior 15 laps later.

Suddenly, lightning flashed in the western sky and, as one, the field started thinking about the Coca Cola 300. A Scott Pruett punt opened the pits and with some quick work the Earnhardt family took the lap 154 green flag. The Kodak Moment occurred on lap 157 as son passed father in hard-charging racing, trumped a few laps later by Nadeau.

"It's cool," said Junior later, "I'm learning a lot and having fun."

As in all day-to-night races, crew chiefs scurried to change the chassis with the temperature. With just ten laps to the halfway and an official race, Nadeau was attempting to hold off Labonte, Earnhardt Jr, Earnhardt, Kenseth, Rusty Wallace, Jarrett, Stewart, Ricky Rudd and Park. Winds whipped by scudding black clouds buffeted the Speedway, and Junior turned up the wick, passing Nadeau to own the lead as the race became official at 200 laps.

Tires and gas wait for no driver. The showers held off, and 20 laps into the new race the field pitted under green. Labonte emerged as The Hot Car under the lights, trailed by Junior, Nadeau, Earnhardt and Kenseth.

Lap 246 and the rains came. For reasons known only to them at the time, all the leaders except Nadeau and Jeff Burton chose to pit without knowing if a red flag would be thrown. As the cars circled and passed yellow-mile 361/600 (lap 253) NASCAR waved the red flag and Nadeau was sitting in a very good place - ahead of Burton, Earnhardt, Labonte, Kenseth and Earnhardt.

The shower and the red flag proved to be just a temporary nuisance and Nadeau's Hendrick Racing crew had a problem to contemplate. The engine was acting up.

"The car's been fabulous all day," said Nadeau in an exercise of understatement after leading most laps. "We developed a little skip - maybe a valve spring - and we feel it on the straight-aways."

And so it came to be that, after a too-typical intermission ended, the two leading drivers had older rubber and less fuel than everyone else in the race and pitted anyway after a 51 minute red flag.

Earnhardt Junior took the green on lap 262, with Nadeau 14th with a sick engine and a racy Rusty nipping at his heels. Earnhardt, Skinner, Rudd, Park, Labonte, Kenseth, Jarrett and Martin rounded out the racing top ten.

Junior's pace was torrid, almost defying his Monte Carlo's powers of endurance, and paled only to Kenseth's march to 2nd place. But it was on pit road, not the track, Kenseth first got the lead. Ken Schrader brought out the night's sixth caution as he spun off turn four on lap 309. The field pitted and the 17 crew aced a sub-16-second stop. The former Busch competitors emerged ahead of Earnhardt, Labonte and Mayfield.

During two furious laps fans were treated to Stewart trying to unlap himself and Earnhardt trying to pass his son and Kenseth three-wide. It was good entertainment, but the Intimidator-in-Waiting got bored and pulled to a three-second lead while waiting for the final pit stop.

In a day of irony it was Nadeau - rather, his exploding engine - that erased Earnhardt's lead. With less than 40 laps to go, the 25's engine grenaded on the backstretch and the subsequent pit cycle was a mess. A desperate Gordon took two tires only, Labonte, Kenseth, Dad Earnhardt and Jarrett hustled, and Junior was 6th on the restart.

Gordon never led a green lap with 35 to go, and Kenseth muscled his way past Labonte five laps later. Earnhardt trailed the pair two seconds back, his son in fifth and going nowhere.

Kenseth joins Bobby Labonte, in 1995, Jeff Gordon in '94 and David Pearson in '61 in making the 600 his first career Winston Cup win. He started in 21st position, the farthest back anyone has started and won.

The average speed, thanks to 7 cautions for 38 laps, was 142.640 m.p.h. in a race that lasted 4:12:23. The margin of victory was a relatively commanding 0.573 seconds. There were 25 lead changes among 11 drivers.

Matt Kenseth pulled off a popular victory and one for the record books in a most unusual NASCAR season.




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