June 06, 2003 11:27 AM

Despite the absence of original star Vin Diesel, the speedy sequel “2 Fast 2 Furious” was the first to cross the finish line at this weekend’s box office, taking in $52.1 million, according to studio estimates.

“The cars are the stars,” Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal, tells the Associated Press, explaining how lesser-known stars Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson (appearing in a critically dismissed hot-rod movie, no less) could unseat Disney and Pixar’s huge hit — and last week’s No. 1 movie — “Finding Nemo” for the top spot.

Still, “Nemo,” whose $70.3 million opening was the best ever for an animated film, has so far racked up $143.3 million — about $21 million ahead of the 10-day total of “Monsters, Inc.,” the Disney-Pixar tale that was the previous record holder for best animated debut.

(At such a rate, “Nemo” has a good chance at surpassing the $256 million total gross of “Monsters, Inc.,” a Disney exec speculates to the Associated Press.)

In other box-office news, “The Matrix Reloaded” has made $247.7 million in North America alone, while “X2: X-Men United” has taken in $204.3 million.

This weekend’s Top 10 was as follows:

1. “2 Fast 2 Furious,” $52.1 million
2. “Finding Nemo,” $45.8 million
3. “Bruce Almighty,” $21.7 million
4. “The Italian Job,” $13.3 million
5. “The Matrix Reloaded,” $9.1 million
6. “Daddy Day Care,” $4.8 million
7. “X2: X-Men United,” $3.05 million
8. “Wrong Turn,” $2.65 million
9. “The In-Laws,” $2 million
10. “Bend it Like Beckham,” $975,000

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