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Aumann: For Kenseth, a pair beats four of a kind at Dover

May 15, 2011, Mark Aumann,

DOVER, Del. -- Even the most inexperienced poker player inside the Dover Downs casino knows a pair never beats four of a kind. But only a couple of hundred yards away -- and with fewer than 40 laps remaining in Sunday's FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway -- Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig decided to buck the odds.

Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer combined to lead 353 of the 400 laps, but it was Kenseth and Fennig who hit the jackpot with their decision to take two tires instead of four late in the race.

"It seems like we've lost more that way ... than we've won."


When Juan Montoya's Turn 4 spun brought out the final caution flag of the day on Lap 361, Kenseth headed onto pit road behind Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson. At the last instant -- in fact, while the car was being raised into the air -- Kenseth made a suggestion to Fennig.

"While 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," Kenseth said. "It was really Jimmy's call and just a suggestion by me."

On the other side of the pit wall, Fennig was quick to agree.

"That was all Matt there," Fennig said. "He figured we needed to have clean air and he called two tires and we did two and away we went."

The usual train of thought goes something like this: If track position is good, new tires are better. And that's what Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson thought when they went for the conventional play and bolted on four tires. With 33 laps to go under green, there should have been more than enough time to use fresh rubber to their advantage.

"I really thought we'd be able to get back up through them, especially as greasy and as slimy as the track was on restarts," Bowyer said.

"I thought we would be able to march up through there and I thought the race would be between Clint and I," Edwards said.

But two factors combined to scuttle that strategy: an aerodynamic disadvantage in traffic and a track that become more slippery with the buildup of rubber and unexpected sunshine.

"There at the end, I really think that it was just dirty air and track position were the issues why the four-tire guys couldn't get through," Johnson said. "You are just going so fast around here, even though it is just a one-mile track, that clean air, just cleaner air towards the front makes a huge difference."

Kenseth restarted second behind Mark Martin, who stayed out, with five other cars between his No. 17 Ford and those of Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson. That was enough of a cushion for Kenseth, who got by Martin two laps later and eventually won by 2.122 seconds.

"I think that was probably part of our thinking with four [tires]," Kenseth said. "We were going to come out, most likely, behind the three or four guys we were running behind. A few guys were going to sprinkle in there on two. That would have been tough to do in that many laps.

"That always helps. It's always nice to have a little buffer because the other guys that got two were all running behind us. I felt like we probably had a better car than most guys that got two if I could just get a clean restart."

And Johnson, sitting back in 10th, knew his chances were slim at best. Bowyer eventually got back up to sixth, Edwards seventh and Johnson finished ninth.

"I knew basically from the numbers we were in trouble when we left pit road and there were so many guys in front of us," said Johnson, who led 207 laps. "It is just the way it is."

For Kenseth, it put a smile on his face to wind up with the winning hand at Dover's casino royale.

"It seems like we've lost more that way ... than we've won," Kenseth said. "It really turned out good. I was happy we were able to pull it off."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.