Rockingham, N.C. Matt Kenseth picked the best way possible to silence his critics: dominating a race and using a thrilling finish to get back to Victory Lane.
Considered boring in both personality and the way he relied on consistency instead of wins to earn NASCAR's top title last season, Kenseth shed the image Sunday by nipping rookie Kasey Kahne at the finish line of North Carolina Speedway to win the Subway 400.
"It feels great to come here and be able to win and lead all the laps right out of the box -- that doesn't look like us," he said. "Some people have said we can't lead laps and we can't win races, we just go finish seventh every week. So it was awesome to go out and do it."
It was Kenseth's first victory in nearly a year. Although he led the point standings for a record 33 straight weeks, he had just one victory and only led 354 laps all season.
His method of collecting a series-best 25 top 10s was considered so drama-free, NASCAR changed the points system this year to prevent a repeat.
No matter to Kenseth, who led a race-high 259 laps and fought off a furious charge from Kahne before edging him at the line by .010 seconds -- the nose of the No. 17 Ford -- in the fourth-closest finish in series history.
"To come out of the box and win right away is great," he said. "There wasn't much bad you could say about our year last season, (and not winning) was one of the things. This just proved people wrong and shows we can do good."
It was yet another thrilling finish at what could be the final race at "The Rock." The tiny track already has lost one of its races under NASCAR's realignment plan and poor attendance could ultimately cost it its remaining date.
There were only about 50,000 fans in attendance at a track that seats 60,113, and those who stayed home missed the usually conservative Kenseth use aggressive moves to dominate the middle of the race then have to hang on tightly to win it.
"I wasn't sure who won," said Kahne, who replaced Bill Elliott this year in the car Elliott drove to victory here last November. "It was too close and went by too fast. It was just fun to run second."
The final finish was set up after Robby Gordon wrecked with 42 laps to go to bring out the final caution and several cars were already on pit road, including Kenseth. But he inexplicably stayed in front during a confusing exchange of stops that left just nine cars on the lead lap.
Kenseth was listed as the leader on the restart with just 30 laps to go, followed by Kahne, Jamie McMurray, Sterling Marlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Ward Burton.
That led to a protest from McMurray's Chip Ganassi Racing team, which felt Kenseth and Kahne should not have been the leaders.
McMurray finished third in a Dodge, and after admitting he didn't understand how NASCAR scored the final stop, said a protest meant little to him.
"I asked a lot of questions under caution and I still don't understand it," McMurray said. "But I could care less about those guys getting disqualified. It would be no fun winning on Monday."
Kenseth opened up a large lead on the restart as he pulled away while everyone behind him had to deal with traffic. But after Kahne and McMurray flopped spots, they set their sights on running down Kenseth.
The three ran nose-to-tail over the final laps, with Kenseth often taking the high line as Kahne tried to sweep below him in the No. 9 Dodge and into the lead. McMurray went even lower, but could never get past either.
It set up a battle between Kenseth and Kahne on the final lap, with Kahne pulling even down the final stretch before getting nosed out at the line.
Kenseth then drove off to Victory Lane, his first trip there since March 2 of last season at Las Vegas. By winning the race and leading the most laps, he picked up 10 bonus points and pulled into second in the standings. He trails Daytona 500 winner Earnhardt Jr., who finished a career-best fifth, by seven points in the standings.