The NASCAR Winston Cup points race hit the 1.5-mile tri-oval at Kentucky Speedway today when newly anointed points leader Mark Martin, the second-place Sterling Marlin and the ninth-place Matt Kenseth tested their racing machines today.

Martin enters the week with a scant six-point advantage over Marlin and leads the series standings for the first time this season.

"It's (the points race) real close this year and that's how racing is," Martin said. "Sometimes the leader laps the field and sometimes you have 40 lead changes. It's just the kind of year this is. Sterling and I are good friends. We have a good relationship because we've raced against each other for almost 20 years. It's not between Sterling and I, it's between us and about eight others and we're all just trying to the best we can."

Marlin, who owned the series points lead for 25 consecutive weeks beginning in week two of the season, also is in the hunt for his first series championship after finishing third in 2001. The 26-year Winston Cup driver also finished third in 1999. He commented being out of the points lead for the first time since the opening week of the season.

"Two races ago we were 95 or 91 (points) ahead, but everybody's so close that with one little slip up, you can lose 34 points at the drop of a hat," Marlin said. "Last week at Richmond we were kind of beat up, I was real sore. We just didn't do a good job setting the car up and it was real tight all day. Martin finished kind of close to me and gained a little bit, but that just closed everybody up. We'll just have to race hard the rest of the year. I want to win some more races. If you win races and you're knocking the top five down, the points will take care of itself. Our chances to win are just as good as anybody's. There are some good tracks coming up for us, we won at Charlotte last fall, so we're ready for them, " he concluded.

Kenseth, who leads the series in wins with four, enters the week ninth in the points standings and is 220 points off of Martin's pace. He said he is happy to be in contention for a possible top five points finish this season.

"I think we're still fighting for the top five, so it's not frustrating at all to have four wins (and be in ninth place)," Kenseth said. "It's really tough to win races these days, it's real competitive, so whenever you can win races, I feel good about that."

While a top-five finish is a goal, he isn't ruling out his chances to become the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup chances.

"It's a close points race this year and I think it's going to go right down to Homestead," Kenseth said. "I feel like we're still in it, we're only 220 out. In the past, 220 out at this time of the year would be second in points. Right now, to be ninth in the points and to know that we still have a legitimate shot at the championship if everything would fall exactly our way is a good feeling."

~ Kentucky Speedway ~