Sunday, February 22, 2009
Kenseth bests Gordon in Auto Club 500
FONTANA, Calif. -- Matt Kenseth's team has found some much-needed magic.
After going through a winless and disappointing 2008, the former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is 2-0 in 2009, adding a victory in Sunday's Auto Club 500 to his win the previous week in the Daytona 500.
"Just great team, great crew, great, great engines," Kenseth bubbled in the aftermath of his 18th career victory. "You just need everything to go right, really to win these races."
At Daytona, Kenseth took the lead moments before rain, which eventually cut the race short, began to fall.
Sunday's race was considerably more dramatic, with Kenseth fending off a determined challenge from four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon to win for the third time on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval.
Kenseth took the lead from Gordon in the pits under caution with 38 laps to go in the 250-lap race and stayed ahead, pulling away over the last 20 laps. But it took a while for the winner to shake Gordon, who went also went winless last year and is desperate to get back to Victory Lane.
"I honestly thought that we were going to be too loose at the end and he was going to catch us," Kenseth said. "Especially [when] I couldn't get away from him that time he ran me down and got right on my bumper [on lap 231]."
But get away he did, beating Gordon's No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to the finish line by 1.464 seconds -- most of the front straightaway.
It is the first time a Cup driver has won the first two races of the season since Gordon did it in 1997 on the way to the second of his four championships.
The key to Kenseth's win Sunday was a near-perfect pit stop that put him in the lead on lap 213.
"It's such a great team," Kenseth said. "I just thank these guys [on the crew]. They gave me a great stop and got me in clean air and that's just a huge difference.
"Our car handled really good all day and we had excellent pit stops. About the fourth one from the end, I started complaining and then, all of a sudden, they started getting me three or four spots every stop."
Earlier in the race, Kenseth, who led a race-high 84 laps, got out ahead and Gordon caught and passed him on a long green-flag run. But, after the final restart on lap 216, Kenseth found a way to stay in front.
Both Kenseth and Gordon were much faster than the rest of the field at the end. They steadily pulled away from the pack. But Gordon was unable to get to Kenseth's rear bumper and get a real run on the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford.
"I thought he was going to pass us again," Kenseth said. "Some people think I'm a pessimist, but I think I'm more of a realist. ... I don't even know what we changed. It wasn't easy, but we were able to hold them off."
Gordon, who has 81 career victories, hasn't won a points race since October of 2007 at Charlotte. But he did win a 150-mile qualifying race at Daytona, then ran strong and finished 13th last week in the rain-shortened 500.
"It was a lot of fun," Gordon said. "This is a new team and they showed it tonight. We've still got a little bit of work to do. I'm so excited on one side because we ran so well and we started out the season so great, but I'm still mad on the other side because I felt like we had what it took to win tonight."
Kenseth's win was also the fifth straight February victory here for team co-owner Jack Roush.
"I don't expect that to continue," Roush said. "We're hard-pressed to figure out what to do to be more ready. But my experience is that these things tend to even themselves out and I just hope that when we have to give back all this success, I'm not here, I'm someplace else."
Both Kenseth and Roush gave a lot of the credit for the fast start to Drew Blickensderfer, who became crew chief of the 17 over the winter.
"Drew has brought magic to the team," Roush said. "He knows how to build a team. He knows how to capitalize on the energy within a team and we needed it. We had all the people with the right skill sets on the team and we just needed someone to find the magic."
Kyle Busch, who made NASCAR history by winning both the Truck and Nationwide races on Saturday, came up short of the weekend sweep.
"It's never been done before, so you know it's a challenge," Busch said after finishing third. "The last one's always the hard one to get. It's on Sunday and it's the biggest show. Maybe one day."
Greg Biffle was a contender throughout the race, but fell to 12th after being penalized for running over his own air hose on a pit stop on lap 209. He charged all the way to fourth, but was still upset by his mistake.
"They should fire me," said Biffle, one of four Kenseth teammates. "You just can't make mistakes like that."
Kurt Busch finished fifth, followed by Denny Hamlin, defending race winner Carl Edwards, two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart and three-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who led 74 laps but faded in the late-going.