NEW YORK - Matt Kenseth is finally enjoying his NASCAR championship. He had an audience with President Bush, is being wined and dined in New York City, and will collect more than $9-million tonight at the circuit's awards banquet.
But it took awhile for the joy of the Winston Cup title to sink in.
"When we knew we had won the championship at Rockingham, I was kind of numb," Kenseth said, shaking his head. "We still had another race to run in Homestead and it was sort of business as usual. Then we finished last in Homestead when our engine blew and that kind of took some of the edge off the celebration."
Now, the driver from Cambridge, Wis., is reaping the rewards of his triumph and enjoying it immensely. His little hometown in southern Wisconsin is even getting in on the act.
"I went home for Thanksgiving and it was really neat to drive through town and see the bank clocks and the little Subway sandwich shop and the fire station and everybody had signs and banners up," Kenseth said. "They're trying to plan a parade."
He caused a bit of a stir by becoming the first driver in 30 years to win the Winston Cup title despite only one victory. Criticism from some quarters prompted NASCAR to look into the possibility of changing its points system.
But Ryan Newman, who won a series-high eight races and was sixth in the standings, isn't taking away anything from Kenseth.
"Winning eight races - that's a little less than a quarter of the season, and I don't think a quarter of the season should dictate a Winston champion," Newman said.
"To me, a Winston Cup champion should be able to qualify great, should be able to race great and win races and lead a lot of laps. Matt did some of that this year, and we did some of that. It's just that his some of that weighed a little heavier than ours."
Said Kenseth: "Looking back now, with some time to think about it, it was a great season for our whole team. We can enjoy it for a little while, then we'll have to start thinking about doing it again next year."
ELLIOTT PULLBACK OFFICIAL: Former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott made it official: He will drive a limited schedule in 2004 for Evernham Motorsports.
"I'm still competitive and I could have kept driving full time for a few more seasons," he said. "But this is the way to go, and I think other older drivers will see how it works and might want to do the same thing."
The 48-year-old driver said he would like to drive 15 of the 36 Nextel Cup races next season if sponsorship can be found. He and team owner Ray Evernham would like the arrangement to be for more than one year.
Elliott said he will drive at tracks he enjoys - Las Vegas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Kansas and Michigan. He will skip the Daytona 500 and the race at Rockingham, N.C., before opening his regular season March 7 at Las Vegas.
"I didn't want to see Bill Elliott leave the sport," said Evernham, who hired Elliott as a driver when he started Evernham Motorsports three years ago. "He's my business partner and my friend."
Also at Elliott's news conference in New York City were holdover driver Jeremy Mayfield and Kasey Kahne, 23, who is moving up from the Busch Series and will take Elliott's place as the full-time driver of the No. 9 Dodge.
SAUTER HIRED: Rookie Johnny Sauter will replace Steve Park in the No. 30 car for Richard Childress Racing in 2004. Childress said Sauter, 25, will be teamed with veteran crew chief Kevin Hamlin.