CONCORD, N.C. - Matt Kenseth won the 2003 season championship with a lone victory at Las Vegas followed by months of quiet consistency. So quiet and so consistent, some say, that it prompted NASCAR to revamp its points system in an effort to add drama.
After two victories in the first 11 races - at Rockingham and Las Vegas - and a dramatic win in Saturday night's Nextel All-Star Challenge, few could argue that Kenseth, currently fourth in points, isn't deserving of his champion's trophy.
In the no-holds-barred all-star race, Kenseth was racy from the start. A notoriously poor qualifier - he has one Cup pole in his career - he started third and was rarely out of the top five throughout the 90-lap race. He passed Ryan Newman late and went on to win.
"It feels good to kind of vindicate ourselves after some of the criticism we got last year," Kenseth said. "And it feels better to be able to come from behind and race (Newman) so hard for the win and to pass him with no contact and put on a good race. Those are the kind of races you dream about winning."
The race also gave Tony Stewart a chance to rebuild his reputation as a courteous driver. While others traded paint, Stewart ran an incident-free race and finished third.
And Newman showed that even though NASCAR has gone to a softer tire compound, it's still possible to run well by forgoing pit stops to gain or keep track position.
Newman admitted, however, that he should have taken two new tires on the final pit stop, which likely would have allowed him to keep the lead and still have fresh rubber.
"I think two tires would have been better, but in hindsight I say that," Newman said, adding a few caution laps in the final segment might have allowed him to go farther on his tires and possibly have changed the outcome.
When the caution flag flew before the final 20-lap run, Newman stayed on the track and kept the lead but had to compete with drivers who had 30 fewer laps on their tires.
It almost worked. He held off Kenseth for 17 laps, losing the lead with four to go. He finished second over Stewart, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"If we'd had a caution with about 10 laps to go, I think we would have been in pretty good shape," Newman said. "But coulda, woulda, shoulda."