DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The Crown Royal International Race of Champions at Daytona International Speedway last night looked less like a race and more like the demolition derby from the county fair.
Half the field was culled by a pair of multicar crashes, and winner Matt Kenseth had to survive a series of final-lap nudges and challenges from runner-up Sam Hornish Jr. and Martin Truex Jr.
Kenseth claimed the first installment of the four-race IROC series that pits top drivers from a half-dozen different series against each other in identically prepared cars.
Hornish, the northwest Ohio native and two-time champion of the Indy Racing League, got tangled up in an incident that knocked out Mark Martin, the defending IROC champ and a five-time winner of the series title, just 10 laps into the 40-lap race.
While maneuvering in the pack, Hornish tapped the rear of Nextel Cup defending champ Tony Stewart's car, and as Stewart tried to recover, he spun Martin into the wall. Ryan Newman, who also got collected in the mess, dropped out a bit later with a leaking radiator.
Kenseth, the 2002 Nextel Cup champion who won the IROC crown in 2004, started last in the 12-car race but averted the crash and quickly worked his way through the field and into the lead. Kenseth led 20 of the first 25 laps as the evenly matched Pontiac Firebirds made for few opportunities to overtake other cars, and a lot of single-file running along the yellow line.
The aggressive bump-drafting that has been a hot topic this week was employed a number of times, and a likely factor in both crashes.
"They do hit each other pretty hard,'' Kenseth said. "It was just hard to pass, and to get anybody a big run outside you had to hit them pretty hard to give them a shot at getting some momentum.''
With just three laps to go and the challengers jumping around trying to make something happen, World of Outlaws champ Steve Kinser got bumped from behind by ARCA champ Frank Kimmel. A second impact sent Kinser up the track into the wall, then airborne over Stewart's car.
After a long slide on his roof with sparks flying, Kinser's car came to rest at the base of Turn 3. Scott Sharp, Ted Musgrave and Stewart, along with Kinser, were all knocked from the race by the crash, but none were seriously injured.
"For the most part, the race was a blast," said Sharp, a former IRL champ. "It was pretty aggressive, and fun while it lasted."
After a lengthy delay to extricate Kinser from his car, the race restarted. Two-time Busch Series champ Truex jumped to the outside, and with help from Kimmel, momentarily took the lead on the final lap, but could not maintain the momentum on the high side.
Hornish then got alongside Kenseth in Turn 3, but a final surge by Kenseth and push from Kimmel took Kenseth to the finish line first.
Kimmel was third behind Hornish, while Grand Am road racing specialist Max Papis was fourth, Truex fifth, and Grand Am's Wayne Taylor sixth.
"It's a whole lot of fun when it's done the right way, and can be scary when it's done the wrong way," Hornish said of the aggressive racing and bumping going on out on the track.
"I was really excited to see that Kinser got out of the car and walked to the ambulance. The main thing is we're all out here for fun and we treat it like a job and there's a lot of prize money in it, but the main thing is we all are able to do our other job.''
The winner of the series collects $1 million, with $80,000 going to each of the other 11 drivers. Martin acknowledged that his early exit and 12th place finish puts him far behind in points and will make repeating as champ difficult.
"But it can still be done," Martin said.
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