After a frustrating 2008 Sprint Cup campaign, Matt Kenseth is certainly making up for lost time, but owes a lot to the help he is getting from his friends on pit-road.

Winless last season, Kenseth backed up his victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 by holding off Jeff Gordon in Sunday's Auto Club 500 Sprint Cup race, but received a major boost from his Roush Fenway Racing crew as the battle intensified in the closing stages.

With a lightning-fast pit-stop, Kenseth's crew made sure the #17 Carhartt Ford was first away for a lap 216 restart, brought about when Daytona runner-up Kevin Harvick slammed the turn one wall to cause the fifth and final caution of the 250-lap race.

Kenseth, who won for the 18th time in the Cup series, stayed in front the rest of the way to the flag and beat Gordon by just 1.463secs to become the fifth driver in Cup history to win the first two races of a season. The last to do so was Gordon, in 1997, when the year started at Daytona and Rockingham.

Kenseth, however, revealed that he had not been confident of holding the four-time champion at bay because Gordon had caught and passed him on the previous green flag run.

"I thought he was going to pass us," the Ford man admitted, "Some people call me a pessimist -- I think I'm more of a realist -- but, when we took off the run before, we got the lead and ran some real fast laps and we left Jeff 15 or 20 car lengths [behind].

"In the middle of that run, he ran me right down, drove by me and took off. Greg [Biffle] drove by me, took off. I don't even know what [the pit crew] adjusted, but they got us in front again, which is obviously a big key to it. We took off and, right away, I could feel that it was better - but I didn't think it was that much better. As many laps as were left, I honestly thought we were going to be too loose at the end, and he was going to catch us."

Gordon was ambivalent about the result, which showed a marked improvement over last year, but continued to leave him winless in Sprint Cup competition since October 2007.

"I think we're head and shoulders above where we were," he confirmed, "I know we're just a couple races in, and this is one race, but I just loved the way the car was driving. To be able to battle and go to the front like that and have solid pit-stops, I'm just really excited -- and also really bummed out we didn't win the race tonight.

"I felt like we had the car, [but] Matt was awful good in the pits as well as on the track. That last run, we made one little adjustment. I didn't mind that he got out there on us. When I started running him down, I was like 'we've got him, we've got him' and then my car started getting tighter and tighter and tighter.

"I went to every groove that I could possibly find, and the car just wouldn't turn, and I knew that, with about 20 [laps] to go, that if he didn't make a mistake, we weren't going to get him."

Drew Blickensderfer, who graduated from Nationwide Series to Cup Series this year, is now two-for-two as Kenseth's crew chief, while his driver opened an 81-point lead over second-place Gordon in the Cup standings. Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart are tied for third after two rounds, 91 points behind the #17 Ford driver.

Kyle Busch finished third, falling short in his bid to sweep all three races in NASCAR's top series at the same track in the same weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had already won both the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series races at the two-mile Auto Club racetrack on Saturday, but could not match Kenseth and Gordon when it mattered in the main event.

Greg Biffle recovered from a pit-road mistake to come home fourth, where he was followed by Kurt Busch. Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Stewart, early leader Jimmie Johnson and hapless polewinner Brian Vickers, who came from the back of the grid to completd the top ten.

The engine and right front tyre blew on Harvick's Richard Childress Chevrolet on lap 208, ending a remarkable modern-era record streak of 81 races without a DNF. Hendrick Motorsports team-mates Dale Earnhardt Jr and Mark Martin both also suffered rare engine failures, and were classified 39th and 40th respectively.

A week after the Daytona 500 was cut short by the arrival of rain, NASCAR called four of the five cautions in Fontana because of light precipitation.

by Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service



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