North Carolina Speedway has a special place in Matt Kenseth's heart. Six years ago, Kenseth wheeled his way to a Busch Series win with a fledgling team fielded by crew chief Robbie Reiser and today, Kenseth was the class of the field once again, winning the Nextel Cup Subway 400.
The Busch Series win cemented Kenseth's relationship with Reiser and helped the team attract a sponsorship deal that financed the rest of their season. Kenseth won the Cup Series race at The Rock two years ago and clinched the series championship here last November.
"I could feel the air coming off his car, slowing my car down," Kenseth described after the race. "It was stressful. We led it all day and I was doing everything I could. The last lap, I got up as high as I could and (Kahne) got a good charge on me."
Kahne started the race third and piloted his Evernham Dodge to a second place finish in his second Nextel Cup race. It was the best finish ever by a rookie at Rockingham.
"I was doing all I could," Kahne explained. "I could get little runs on Kenseth at times, but it was real hard. I just tried to set him up (at the end). We made it a close race."
With Kenseth and Kahne on pit road with 42 laps to go, Robby Gordon and Jeff Green got together coming out of Turn 2. After a review by NASCAR, Kenseth and Kahne were scored at the front of the field and avoided going a lap down.
"We knew we were ahead of the field when they froze it," Kenseth stated. "But I still didn't know what they were gonna do when we pulled off of pit road."
Kenseth was strong on every restart and floated away from the pack when the green came out with 30 laps to go. Mark Martin, part owner of Kenseth's Ford, was the first of the lapped cars on the grid and briefly held up Kahne and McMurray before they were able to close to within two car lengths of the leader with 10 laps to go.
"The motor ran real good and I was just careful not to spin the tires," Kenseth described about his restarts. "We could do that all day for some reason and that helped a lot because when you're on fresh tires, it's nice to not have somebody right on your bumper."
After starting the race 23rd, Kenseth first made his way to the front on lap 90. He built a 1.2 second lead over pole-sitter Ryan Newman before making a green flag stop and relenting the lead on lap 127. He took it back seven laps later and paced the field for most of the next 200 laps.
McMurray, who won his fourth straight Busch Series race at Rockingham on Saturday, took the lead on lap three and held it for 38 circuits. He took the lead from Kenseth on lap 303 before the #17 returned the favor 28 laps later.
"We came from a long ways behind," McMurray said. "It was a pretty good day. It kind of reminds you of what you grew up doing."
Sterling Marlin brought his Dodge home in fourth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fifth, his best run in nine Cup Series starts.
"We got real lucky all day long," admitted Earnhardt, who has a seven point lead over Kenseth in the championship standings. "I had a pretty decent car. It was pretty bad at the beginning but we kept working on it. I'm just glad to get a top-5. It's been admittedly my worst track on the schedule."
Jimmie Johnson was taken out of the race when he made contact with Ken Schrader's Dodge coming to pit road on lap 131. Schrader's crew made repairs during the caution and got the car back on the track after losing two laps. The crash left the #48 Chevy with heavy damage to the front end.
"This is definitely a way that we didn't want to start the season," said Johnson, who finished 41st after a fifth place finish at Daytona last week. "From my vantage point coming into the corner, I thought he (Schrader) was staying on the track. I tried to miss him and pounded the outside wall."
Dale Jarrett, who won the race last year, qualified ninth and moved up to fourth before the motor in his UPS Ford expired on lap 207.
"It's unfortunate, it's very rare that we have anything (go wrong) in that department," Jarrett described. "It's too bad, our car was really good on the long runs."
Carl Long had a spectacular wreck on the backstretch with 130 laps to go. Brendan Gaughan got into the back of Joe Nemechek, starting a chain reaction that sent Long into the outside wall. His car hit the banking in Turn 3 and rolled several times before coming to a rest at the bottom of the track. Long got out of the car on his own and wasn't hurt in the incident.
The series takes a week off before returning to action on March 7 in Las Vegas. Kenseth won the race there last year, giving Roush Racing their fourth win in the six-year history of the 1.5 mile speedway.