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Aumann: Return to Rockingham reminds Kahne of 2004

April 05, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Then-rookie missed out on his first Cup Series win by .01 second to Kenseth

When Kasey Kahne returns to Rockingham Speedway next weekend for the Truck Series' debut there, it'll be his first chance to revisit a place where he came within a blink of winning a Cup race in his second career start.

The 2004 Subway 400 was the final Cup race held at the former North Carolina Motor Speedway, and for finales, it was hard to top. Matt Kenseth snapped a year-long winless streak, holding off Kahne by .01 second -- or about the length of a fender.

"We just got robbed in front of 100,000 people. "


Kahne was happier with second than he was disappointed at coming so close to the win. But that wasn't the case for third-place Jamie McMurray. Team Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, owners of McMurray's car, stormed the NASCAR hauler afterward, wanting to know why they weren't in Victory Lane.

Kenseth's car was so good all day that he made almost no changes to the setup. Only Kahne -- a rookie driving the car Bill Elliott had won with at Rockingham the previous fall -- and McMurray were able to stay with him. And when Kenseth decided to pit on Lap 350, Kahne followed the leader while McMurray stayed out.

Seconds later, Robby Gordon crashed on the backstretch to bring out the caution. As per the rules of the day, McMurray wound up passing Kenseth and Kahne -- who were just about to leave the pits -- and picked up the pace car in Turn 2.

But instead of having his primary competition pinned a lap down, McMurray only could watch in surprise as NASCAR officials waved Kenseth and Kahne around the pace car and put them at the tail end of the lead lap.

This was NASCAR president Mike Helton's explanation:

"We had officials down at that end of the track making the decision whether or not those cars were in the middle of those pit stops or through with their pit stops by the time the leaders got back around. Our call was that they were progressively through the pit stop but still on pit road."

According to Helton, it was a matter of intent. In NASCAR's opinion, Kenseth and Kahne completed what were considered "routine" pit stops and were permitted to remain on the lead lap.

"You don't want to entice people to try to outguess the caution and make the pit stop and benefit from making that pit stop," Helton said. "As it happens, they did, but it was just pure accident. There's a point where you have to make a call that he benefited from staying in the pits doing more work on the car while everybody else was racing. That's not what happened in this case."

Once the pits were opened, the rest of the lead-lap cars stopped for service, leaving Kenseth and Kahne in first and second -- and Ganassi and Sabates incredulous.

"We just got robbed in front of 100,000 people," Ganassi said after getting no satisfaction from his post-race discussion with NASCAR. "They come in the pits and then it goes yellow, and then we go in the pits as the race leader and come out third. How does that work?"

But that wasn't the end of the controversy. On the restart with 30 laps remaining, Mark Martin -- two laps down at the time -- lined up on the inside of Kenseth. At the drop of the green, Martin was able to squeeze his No. 6 Ford in between Kenseth and Kahne, allowing his Roush teammate to build a significant lead.

Afterward, Martin watched the replay and thought it confirmed that he was "racing and wasn't in anybody's way."

Eventually, both Kahne and McMurray got around the lapped car -- and began to close quickly on the leader. With 10 laps to go, Kahne's No. 9 Dodge was on the bumper of Kenseth's No. 17 Ford, but Kahne was as worried about keeping McMurray at bay as he was about trying to pass Kenseth.

It stayed that way for lap after lap, with Kahne continually getting a huge run out of Turn 2, only to find Kenseth in the preferred line at the other end of the track. But on the white flag lap, Kenseth went to protect the top groove -- and Kahne ducked to the inside.

Subway 400

2.Kasey KahneDodge
3.Jamie McMurray Dodge
4.Sterling Marlin Dodge
5.Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet
6.Ryan Newman Dodge
7.Rusty Wallace Dodge
8.Kurt Busch Ford
9.Ward Burton Chevrolet
10.Jeff Gordon Chevrolet

"I knew Kasey was a little bit lower, but I really didn't pay that much attention," Kenseth said. "I figured as long as I got into Turn 3 in front of him, there was no way he was going to beat me off Turn 4 [and] down the straightaway."

It almost worked, as Kahne inched closer and closer to the lead. But Kenseth had just enough momentum left to hang on by no more than a foot as the two cars crossed the start/finish line side by side.

"I was surprised he had that big of a run," Kenseth said. "I looked down and saw his nose was up by the door."

For Kenseth, the victory was a bit of vindication. Thanks to 25 top-10 finishes, he won the 2003 championship despite winning only one race. There was sentiment that part of the reason the new Chase format was instituted the following season was in part because of Kenseth clinching the title with one race remaining.

But that somewhat sold Kenseth short, since he won five Cup races in 2002 and had 12 victories in the then-Busch Series by that time.

"Some people have said we can't lead laps and we can't win races, we just go finish seventh every week. So it was awesome to go out and do it," he said. "There wasn't much bad you could say about our year last season [and not winning] was one of the things. This just proved people wrong and shows we can do good."

Veteran driver Andy Hillenburg bought the track at auction from Bruton Smith for $4.4 million in 2007 -- and the Truck race next weekend will be the first visit there by a NASCAR national series since Kenseth's victory.

As for Kahne, he's had pretty good success in the Truck Series -- winning three of the four races he's run and finishing second in the other.