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2003 champ a rote warrior

Matt Kenseth isn't about to surrender anything he's earned. That's why he entered this season a little sensitive to the notion that his grindingly consistent run to a first title, though admittedly "a little boring," prompted NASCAR to spice up the way it decides its champion.

But he doesn't want handouts, either. That's why he's still not completely enamored with NASCAR's Chase for the Championship, though it will allow him to defend his title.

It's the system he has been given, so he might as well take advantage of it, he said. He appears to be doing just that.

Kenseth enters today's MBNA America 400 at Dover International Speedway, the second of 10 playoff races, fourth in the standings after finishing second last weekend at Loudon, N.H. He starts eighth in his No. 17 Ford that was among the quickest in practice _ "I don't remember them being as strong here in the spring," Jimmie Johnson said _ and positioned where his dependability could make him the first repeat champion since Jeff Gordon in 1998.

But Kenseth insists none of this is about proving himself.

"I definitely don't think it will be a bigger achievement if we can do it (again)," said Kenseth, at 32 a self-described "traditionalist." "And I don't think we need to be vindicated for anything.

"I think that it's tough to win a championship no matter what format it's under. But I feel like last year, the way it was set up, to have that pressure each and every week for 36 weeks, not be able to break and not be able to have trouble and do all the things I think was pretty tough for us to accomplish."

Crew chief Robbie Reiser, who has raced with or against Kenseth since their days in Wisconsin, also heard the criticism of Kenseth's one-win 2003 season. It's easier for him to ignore.

"Matt's affected by what people say a lot more than I am," Reiser said. "So if he takes it to heart more what people say, it makes it sound like what he did was less than what he should have done. So if I was him, the trophy is on the mantel and it's over with. You have to move on to next season."

Kenseth did that with haste, winning twice in the first three weeks and earning 16 top 10s (and three races unfinished) to stay within the playoff boundary.

"He came out and won his two races early, and they've settled down to a pace that has really let them test some things," team owner Jack Roush said. "There was never a time where they were at risk of falling out of the top 10. It's just been a waiting game for them, to get ready for the last 10 races."

Not that Kenseth will be points racing. He was accused of that last season while amassing 25 top-10 finishes.

"The people that said that _ we were even being conservative last year _ it's just hogwash," Kenseth said. "It's so competitive, you can't run conservatively. If you run conservatively, you're going to run 25th or 30th.

"It's tough to go out there and run in the top 10 and run up front, and even tougher to win races. Anybody can see that looking through the stats. Jeff Gordon used to win 13 races a year, now he wins anywhere from three to five.""

Kenseth said the most noticeable benefit of the new system is the reduced stress. A late-season spate of trouble eroded a lead that stood at 436 points after he finished ninth at Dover. Then came three results of 33rd or worse in the last seven races. Kenseth blew an engine 28 laps into the the season finale at Homestead and finished last. He waited hours to finally be awarded his championship trophy.

"Matt had a phenomenal first two-thirds of the season," Kyle Petty said. "I'm not saying he had a phenomenal last third. So because Matt had a phenomenal first two-thirds, we're going to penalize him the last third? That seemed to be the explanation when the (debate) started (that) he's so far out in front we needed to get everybody back together, and that's wrong."

Safely within the top 10 in the standings and holding a playoff spot all season, Kenseth knew poor races were less troublesome in the first 26 races this year. A 265-point deficit to then-leader Gordon was reduced to 20 when the points were adjusted after the last regular-season race at Richmond. Now 10 points from the lead, Kenseth again needs that innate ability to avoid trouble that defined much of his 2003 season.

On a team that doesn't deviate much from the plan good weeks and bad, Reiser said he never expected Kenseth to change much no matter what his emotions were this season.

"Matt gives us 100 percent if he likes (the new points system) or dislikes it," Reiser said. "I don't think you can say he was going to come out and drive harder because of this. He drives hard every time he goes out. I don't think incentive makes him do any more."

But maybe a little doesn't hurt.

MBNA AMERICA 400

Pos., no., driver, make, speed

1. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 159.405 mph

2. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 159.018

3. (25) Brian Vickers Chevy, 158.346

4. (38) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 158.249

5. (15) Michael Waltrip, Chevy, 158.200

6. (18) Bobby Labonte, Chevy, 157.985

7. (2) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 157.743

8. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 157.701

9. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 157.680

10. (42) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 157.639

11. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 157.611

12. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, 157.604

13. (97) Kurt Busch, Ford, 157.473

14. (21) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 157.439

15. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford, 157.157

16. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy, 157.089

17. (0) Ward Burton, Chevy, 156.965

18. (10) Scott Riggs Chevy, 156.815

19. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 156.719

20. (9) Kasey Kahne Dodge, 156.692

21. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, 156.678

22. (32) Bobby Hamilton, Chevy, 156.563

23. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevy, 156.515

24. (01) Joe Nemechek, Chevy, 156.454

25. (77) Brendan Gaughan Dodge, 156.250

26. (41) Casey Mears, Dodge, 156.060

27. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 155.858

28. (43) Jeff Green, Dodge, 155.817

29. (22) Scott Wimmer Dodge, 155.682

30. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevy, 155.615

31. (49) Ken Schrader, Dodge, 155.514

32. (31) Robby Gordon, Chevy, 155.273

33. (30) Jeff Burton, Chevy, 155.273

34. (40) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 155.246

35. (37) Kevin Lepage, Dodge, 155.025

36. (4) Jimmy Spencer, Chevy, 154.613

37. (51) Tony Raines, Chevy, 154.328

38. (5) Terry Labonte, Chevy, 154.235

39. (50) Jeff Fuller, Dodge, prov.

40. (09) Joe Ruttman, Dodge, prov.

41. (98) Geoffrey Bodine, Ford, prov.

42. (89) Morgan Shepherd, Dodge, prov.

43. (72) Kirk Shelmerdine, Ford, prov.

FAILED TO QUALIFY

44. (02) Hermie Sadler, Chevy, 153.984

45. (00) Carl Long, Ford, 152.452

46. (92) Stanton Barrett, Ford, 151.899

47. (13) Greg Sacks, Dodge, 151.337

48. (35) Kenny Hendrick, Chevy, 149.161

49. (80) Derrike Cope, Ford, 145.085

50. (75) Mike Garvey, Dodge, DNF

Up next:SUPER OLD

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