Sunday, July 13, 2003

Kenseth quietly cruising toward Cup trophy

The Associated Press

JOLIET, Ill. - Kevin Harvick is the man in the spotlight heading into today's Tropicana 400, and that's just the way low-key Winston Cup points leader Matt Kenseth likes it.

While Harvick gets headlines as he drives for his third straight win at Chicagoland Speedway, the quiet Kenseth goes into the 18th event of the 36-race season with a 180-point lead over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Nobody has held a bigger edge at this point in the season since Dale Earnhardt Sr. had a 209-point advantage over Dale Jarrett in 1993. Earnhardt went on to beat Rusty Wallace for the Winston Cup championship by 80 points.

That said, none of his competitors is handing Kenseth anything yet, of course, but 18 of the last 28 championships were won by the driver leading after 17 races.

Kenseth's top finish in three years in NASCAR's top stock car series was eighth place last season, when he led Winston Cup with five victories. He certainly doesn't want to talk about winning a championship with half a season to go.

"We've been pretty consistent, we've been pretty competitive," Kenseth said, "and we've been there at the end, so that's important."

So far this season, Kenseth has only one win, but he also has seven top-five finishes and 14 top-10s and has completed every race.

While Kenseth is happy to be out front and very pleased that his No. 17 Roush Racing Ford has completed all but one lap so far this season, he isn't feeling very secure.

"A lot of people haven't really noticed we had that one streak where we faltered a little bit and they gained 120 points on me in three or four weeks, and we lost a whole bunch of points," he said.

"Since then, we've been able to get some of our momentum back and, hopefully, we can keep that."

CART: Paul Tracy is soaking up every second of his time in the spotlight.

The CART series leader furthered his homecoming celebration Saturday by earning the top starting spot for the Molson Indy, his first ever pole on Toronto's temporary street course.

Tracy, a Toronto native, ran a lap at 58.839 seconds at Exhibition Place.

Then he watched and waited to see if Bruno Junqueira, the provisional polesitter based on his speeds from Friday's session, would best him.

He didn't, and Tracy celebrated by pumping his fist to the screaming crowd, then hoisted the pole-winner's trophy high into the air.

"It's fantastic," he said. "I was out of the car with five minutes to go in the session and I just had to wait. That's always hard to do because Bruno and Michel (Jourdain) can put a lap together at any time and with the changing track conditions, you just didn't know."

Junqueira will start second in today's race after running a lap at 106.486 mph and Jourdain qualified third at 106.691.

Both were disappointed with their efforts: Junqueira because the on-and-off again rain prevented him from running a lap in prime track conditions and Jourdain because of alleged blocking from other competitors.

"It was just a really, really frustrating day," Jourdain said.

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