Kenseth and crew make it two in a row
FONTANA, CALIF. Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon were thinking the same thing in the final laps of Sunday’s Auto Club 500.
Both wound up being wrong.
“I thought it was about over,” Kenseth said, fearing that his Ford was going to be too loose over the final 35 laps to hold on for his second straight Sprint Cup victory.
“When we started running him down, I said, ’We’ve got him,’ “ said Gordon, who had caught and passed the Cambridge native Kenseth on the previous run at Auto Club Speedway.
Gordon did get right to Kenseth’s rear bumper with about 20 laps left, but that’s about the time he and Kenseth started getting a clearer picture of how things would turn out.
Kenseth’s Roush Fenway Racing team had not only gotten him off pit road first on the final pit stop, it also had made some adjustments to the No. 17 Ford that helped him run better in clean air.
“You always do what you think is right to try to get better,” Kenseth said. “But I don’t even know what they did to it. I will do a little espionage later to find out.”
Gordon, however, knew as soon as he got close to Kenseth that he was in trouble.
“The car kept getting tighter and tighter,” Gordon said. “I knew with about 20 to go unless he made a mistake we weren’t going to catch him.”
Kenseth made no such mistakes and went on to become the first driver since Gordon in 1997 to follow up a Daytona 500 victory with a win in the next race.
Last week’s victory at Daytona in a rain-shortened race sent Kenseth on a whirlwind publicity tour on NASCAR’s behalf. It also took him back to victory lane after he went all of the 2008 season without a Cup win.
“I don’t think another win will ever be as big as winning the Daytona 500,” Kenseth said. “But in a way this almost feels better. It this kind of race you don’t need anybody’s help or anything like that. Here we had to figure out a way to beat the other 42 teams that were here with speed and strategy.
“It feels unbelievable to win these two races.”
Gordon’s emotions were decidedly mixed after he finished second. On one hand he was happy with how his car ran and his team worked through a race run to its full 500-mile distance despite being interrupted briefly four times by rain. On the other hand, he wasn’t thrilled that a good chance to snap his own 42-race winless streak, the longest in the four-time Cup champion’s career, slipped away.
“It’s called getting beat and not liking it,” said Gordon, for whom 2008 was his first winless season since 1993. “Last year was very disappointing and it was probably the biggest motivation we could have had. We just went to work.”
Jimmie Johnson led 74 of the first 77 laps. Gordon then led from Lap 88 to Lap 127 before Kenseth seemed to take charge. But Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet walked the leader down until he made the pass on Lap 196.
The leaders all needed another pit stop after that, though, and Kenseth’s team had been picking up spots for its driver all night. The final chance to make a difference came after Kevin Harvick had an engine problem and slid on his own oil and hit the wall on Lap 208, bringing out a yellow flag.
That proved to be the decisive moment in the race. Kenseth’s team not only gave him the adjustment he needed, it also got him off pit road just ahead of Gordon.
The adjustment was to help Kenseth’s car handle better out front, so that worked out nicely for the team led by crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who has now won the only two races in which he has served as a crew chief in the Cup series.
Team owner Jack Roush, whose cars have now won all five Cup races held at this 2-mile track in the month of February, said Blickensderfer is a cog in the success Kenseth has enjoyed.
“Drew has brought magic to the team.” Roush said. “His dad was a coach . . .and Drew knows how to build a team and how to capitalize on the energy within a team. We needed that.”
The other significant development on that final round of stops came in Greg Biffle’s pit. Biflfle was contending with Kenseth and Gordon, but he slid into his pit box too deep and ran over the air hose used by his front-tire changer.
Biffle had to back up and that cost him valuable time. He was 11th on the restart and had to battle the rest of the way just to finish fourth behind Kyle Busch, who came up short in his bid to complete a weekend sweep of the Cup, Nationwide and Truck races here.