Racing Beat

Bonus points pushed Matt Kenseth past Ryan Newman for the $1 million win.

Best of the Best
Who’s the best racecar driver?

It’s a debate that will rage as long as there are wheels, gasoline and competitors.
NASCAR faithful will always pick their favorite; Formula One and Indycar supporters would claim their guy is the one, and even the pilots to toil away on short tracks or in Outlaw cars might give the nod to their hero.

While no one can know for sure who the best of the best is, Matt Kenseth made a legitimate claim in October by winning the International Race of Champions title in Atlanta.

The 2003 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion became the first-ever $1 million winner of the crown when he won the final leg of the four-race schedule.

Kenseth is the third consecutive competitor to win the prestigious title in his first year of competition, joining 2002 champion Kevin Harvick and 2003 champion Kurt Busch.

Kenseth took the lead on lap 53 of the 65-lap, 100.1-mile sprint and held off last lap charges Nextel Cup series’ points leader at the time Ryan Newman to win by 0.257 seconds.

Bonus points saved the day for Kenseth, who was in the right position at the right time: he collected two additional points for being in second place at the lap 45 competition yellow and, at the conclusion of the race, picked up three more bonus points for leading the second most laps (13).

Without those bonus points Newman, who finished second, would have won the $1 million dollar championship by virtue of the tiebreaker of best average finish over all four races.

Reigning IROC champ Kurt Busch helped Kenseth take the lead from NASCAR’s Kevin Harvick, who had been dominating the race.

“I was fortunate enough to have Kurt [Busch] give me a big shove at the end. Kurt gave me a good push to get by Kevin [Harvick] for the lead,” Kenseth says.

Harvick had attempted to make his push for the crown by charging from his seventh place starting spot to the lead by lap seven. Harvick collected five bonus points for leading most laps, (46) and three additional bonus points for leading at the competition yellow.

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It appeared as though Harvick was heading for a second IROC trophy after a strong restart until being overtaken by Kenseth and Busch. Following the pass, Harvick was trying to protect his position when he and NASCAR veteran Jimmie Johnson made contact between turns three and four, resulting in Johnson’s car going down onto the apron.

The scuffle allowed World of Outlaws champion Danny “The Dude” Lasoski and NASCAR Craftsman Truck champion Travis Kvapil to gain valuable positions.

Lasoski continued to mount a charge to the front and challenged Kenseth for the lead before being passed by Newman with two laps remaining, relegating Lasoski to a third-place finish.

“I felt really good about [winning] until I looked in my mirror and saw [Lasoski] outside,” Kenseth says. “It’s a lot like Daytona with the draft, and I was too far out in front thinking they were going to get a run and freight train by me. I was worried about that, and then The Dude made an awesome run up through there and gave me a good shot down the backstretch, which gave me a little extra momentum to hold him off. I knew the points were going to be real close, and when I saw him charging there at the end I was a little nervous.”

The 2004 IROC finale provided fans at Atlanta Motor Speedway with plenty of side-by-side racing and three-wide passing for position throughout the entire event, which was tweaked to make for more competitive action. In addition to the competition yellow, instituted at the beginning of the 2004 season to add a shootout element to the end of each event, the IROC officials included a routine pit stop during the competition yellow to refresh the cars and the drivers for a 20-lap shootout.

“I think it made the race more competitive on the restart,” Kenseth says. “You saw a lot more bump drafting, two- and three-wide passing and some good moves going on, like the run I got on Kevin [Harvick], and he blocked me all the way down the backstretch, and I don’t think I could have got a run like that on the restart without a pit stop.”

The only incident of the race occurred on lap 25, bringing out the caution flag, when USAC champion J. J. Yeley bounced off the wall exiting turn four, collecting two-time Indy 500 champion, Helio Castroneves. The two went spinning through the front stretch of grass with both cars sustaining too much damage to continue; neither driver was injured.

In his closing comments Kenseth said, “The Crown Royal IROC race was a lot of fun. To win the All-Star race was really special because that’s what it is, and everybody has watched IROC for years and years, and it’s exciting with everybody going for broke. So, it’s cool to win that Crown Royal IROC Championship, and the $1 million was cool, too, but to be part of the group of guys who have been part of this series and now, to have won the championship is extra-special.”

Still a Mighty Force
John Force is starting to make it look easy.

Force, whose third-place finish in the NHRA Funny Car Championship last year led to speculation that his remarkable career was in decline, rebounded this season in spectacular fashion.

Ignoring superstition, John Force locked up championship No. 13 by driving his Castrol GTX Start Up Ford Mustang to the No.7 qualifying position in advance of the fourth annual ACDelco Las Vegas Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The man who has made a career out of confounding conventional racing wisdom, debunking the auto racing myths that the color green and the presence of peanuts bring bad luck, closed out his last rival, Del Worsham, simply by qualifying for the season’s next-to-last race.

As is his pre-race ritual, Force ate a spoonful of peanut butter just before donning a white and green firesuit and climbing into the cockpit of his 7,000-horsepower, sage green Ford Mustang and stopping the quarter mile timers in 4.777 seconds at 319.75 mph.

That performance enabled him to extend to 345 the number of consecutive NHRA tour events for which he has qualified a Castrol GTX Funny Car. The last time he failed to make a starting lineup was 17 years ago on Halloween night, 1987, when he was only 24th quickest for the season-ending Winston Finals at Pomona.

There was little doubt he wouldn’t qualify for the season’s finale, however, and, after mid-season, yet another championship was a lock.

Still, while most of his rivals had conceded the championship even before Force lowered the NHRA Funny Car record to its present 4.665 seconds during an incredible Oct. 3 performance at Joliet, Ill., the 11-time Auto Racing All-America selection kept his eyes on the prize in the grand finale.

Knowing that he needed only to qualify at Las Vegas to reclaim the title he lost last season to teammate Tony Pedregon, Force put up numbers during his first two qualifying attempts on Friday that were good enough to make the field – 4.868 seconds on his first try and 4.786 on his second.

Force refused to even discuss the possibility of a title until the title was officially won – a quirk Force has had for 12 years due to a nightmarish 1992 campaign in which a late-season collapse enabled Cruz Pedregon to catch and pass him for the title by winning five straight races.

“I always remember that,” Force says, “and I want the team to remember, too. I told them I never think it’s over until I get the check (at the season-ending banquet).”

Although he started slowly and was only eighth in the driver standings after the season’s first two events, the 113-time tour winner began to turn things around when he won at Bristol, Tenn., at the only track in the series on which he previously had been shut out.

He won again in the spring race in Joliet, Ill., and finally moved into the points lead by reaching the final round in back-to-back races at Englishtown, N.J., and Madison, Ill.

When the NHRA opted to reduce the percentage of nitromethane in the fuel mix, the 1996 Driver of the Year really began to assert himself.

In the eight races contested since that rule first was enforced, the veteran went to five finals, won twice and, in October, became the first Funny Car driver to break the 4.70 second barrier when he was clocked in 4.697 second en route to No. 1.