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Matt Kenseth has winning hand (two of a kind) at Fontana

Keeping cards close to vest as usual, the Daytona champion times his moves perfectly and holds off Jeff Gordon to win Auto Club 500 and start season with two straight victories.

February 23, 2009|Jim Peltz

Matt Kenseth is known as one of NASCAR's more reserved drivers, a Wisconsin native who often speaks in clipped sentences and seldom goes looking for the spotlight.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver also has a tendency to hide his cards until it matters and, much to Jeff Gordon's chagrin, he was holding the superior hand Sunday night in Fontana.

Kenseth held off Gordon to win his third Auto Club 500 one week after winning stock-car racing's crown jewel, the Daytona 500, giving Kenseth and new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer a perfect start to the season.

The last Cup driver to win the first two races of the year? Gordon in 1997.

Kyle Busch was third in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, and Kenseth teammate Greg Biffle was fourth.

"It feels pretty unbelievable to win the first two races" of the season, said Kenseth, 36, who won the Cup championship in 2003 but was winless in 2008 -- his first yearlong drought in seven years.

The win also tightened the stranglehold that Roush Fenway seems to have over the two-mile Auto Club Speedway, as Roush drivers have now won the Auto Club 500 five consecutive years.

The 92,000-seat speedway, often chided for its lack of sellouts in recent years, also scored a victory of sorts in the eyes of its officials.

Despite fears that the economic recession, the Academy Awards telecast and other factors might limit attendance to 60,000 or fewer, NASCAR estimated that the race drew about 78,000 people -- 8,000 more than it said attended the Fontana race last Labor Day weekend.

Auto Club Speedway, like many tracks nationwide, had cut prices on some seats in response to the economic pressure.

"The turnout was awesome, I'm so thrilled with the crowd," said track President Gillian Zucker. "It clearly shows how passionate Southern California is about NASCAR. That even in this kind of an economy that the crowd is that big says an awful lot."

They saw a close finish at the wide, fast track where the cars frequently are spread far apart, with Kenseth winning by only 1.5 seconds.

Gordon led 64 of the race's 250 laps in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and appeared poised to finally break his winless streak dating to October 2007.

But Kenseth put his No. 17 Ford in front and kept it there over the final 38 laps, with Gordon in close pursuit but unable to retake the lead.

Kenseth, said team co-owner Jack Roush, "doesn't practice as well as a lot of people," a trait that often hides his car's potential and enables Kenseth "to save the car so he doesn't put extra wear and tear on it."

Gordon found that out the hard way. Despite driving "as hard as I've driven in a long time," Gordon said, "I kind of knew with about 20 [laps] to go that we probably, unless he made a mistake, we weren't going to get him."

Kenseth wasn't so sure. "I thought [Gordon] was going to pass us, I honestly thought we were going to be too loose at the end" with the car's handling, Kenseth said.

"But I guess they tightened his [car] up a little bit and got too tight," Kenseth said. "It wasn't easy, but we had just enough to hold him off."

For the first third of the race, it appeared Gordon teammate and reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson would hold off the field, just as he did in winning last year's Labor Day race in Fontana.

But despite leading 74 laps, Johnson faded to a ninth-place finish.

Busch, who won the two support races Saturday in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series, was hoping to become the first driver in history to sweep all three of NASCAR's events in a single weekend.

"[I] would have loved to have made it a three-way battle" for the lead, "but I couldn't quite get there," Busch said. "I never thought it was a winning car tonight."

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, also won the Auto Club 500 in 2006 and 2007. But he was winless in 2008 for the first time in seven years.

"I just feel great about the group we have assembled," Kenseth said. "Everybody's having fun, everybody's loose."

Brian Vickers, who won the pole position, finished 10th after he was required to start in the rear because his Red Bull Racing team changed the engine in his Toyota after qualifying.

The race was nearly accident-free but had to be stopped four times for sprinkling rain.

The next race is Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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Helene Elliott

Jeff Gordon, still winless since October 2007, is optimistic about season after runner-up finish. PAGE 5

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The finish

The top three finishers at the Auto Club 500 in Fontana:

1ST

MATT KENSETH

Laps led: 84

Carhartt

Ford

--

2ND

JEFF GORDON

Laps led: 64

DuPont

Chevrolet

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3RD

KYLE BUSCH

Laps led: 0

Interstate Batteries

Toyota

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For the complete finish and race statistics, please see PAGE 4.

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WINNING AT FONTANA

*--* Sea. Race Winning Driver 1997 California 500 Jeff Gordon 1998 California 500 Mark Martin 1999 California 500 Jeff Gordon 2000 NAPA 500 Jeremy Mayfield 2001 NAPA 500 Rusty Wallace 2002 NAPA 500 Jimmie Johnson 2003 Auto Club 500 Kurt Busch 2004 Auto Club 500 Jeff Gordon 2004 Pop Secret 500 Elliott Sadler *--*

*--* Sea. Race Winning Driver 2005 Auto Club 500 Greg Biffle 2005 Sony HD 500 Kyle Busch 2006 Auto Club 500 Matt Kenseth 2006 Sony HD 500 Kasey Kahne 2007 Auto Club 500 Matt Kenseth 2007 Aquos 500 Jimmie Johnson 2008 Auto Club 500 Carl Edwards 2008 Pepsi 500 Jimmie Johnson 2009 Auto Club 500 Matt Kenseth *--*

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