Kenseth outduels Gordon to go 2-for-2
Kenseth took the lead from Gordon in the pits with 38 laps to go in the 250-lap race and stayed ahead of the runner-up in the battle of former Cup champions, pulling away over the last 20 laps.
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.
"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.
Kenseth and Gordon were much faster than the rest of the field at the end, both of them pulling away from the pack. But Gordon, like Kenseth winless last year, was unable to get to Kenseth's rear bumper and get a real run on the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford.
"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."
It was Kenseth's third victory on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval and the fifth consecutive February victory for team co-owner Jack Roush.
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."
With a lightning-fast pit stop, Kenseth’s crew made sure his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford was first off pit road for a restart on Lap 216, after Kevin Harvick slammed the Turn 1 wall to cause the fifth and final caution of the 250-lap race.
Kenseth, who won for the 18th time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, stayed in front the rest of the way and beat Gordon to the finish line by 1.463 seconds to become the fifth driver in Cup history to win the first two races of a season. The last to do so? Gordon in 1997, at Daytona and Rockingham.
Kyle Busch finished third and fell short in his bid to sweep all three races in NASCAR’s top series at the same track in the same weekend. On Saturday, Busch won both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series races at the 2.0-mile racetrack.
Greg Biffle recovered from a pit-road mistake to come home fourth, followed by Kurt Busch. Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers completed the top 10.
Because Gordon had caught and passed him on the previous green-flag run, Kenseth wasn’t confident he could hold him off.
“I thought he was going to pass us,” Kenseth said. “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), something like that.
“In the middle of that run, he ran me right down, drove by me and took off. Greg drove by me, took off. ... I don’t even know what they (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 marked improvement over last year but left him winless since October 2007.
“I think we’re head-and-shoulders above where we were,” Gordon said. “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. 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.”
Notes: The engine and right front tire blew on Harvick’s Chevrolet on Lap 208, and he retired from the race, ending a modern-era record streak of 81 races without a DNF. ... Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin suffered rare engine failures; they finished 39th and 40th, respectively. ... Drew Blickensderfer, who graduated from the Nationwide to the Cup series this year, is 2-for-2 as Kenseth’s crew chief. ... Kenseth opened an 81-point lead over second-place Gordon in the Cup standings. Kurt Busch and Stewart are tied for third, 91 points behind Kenseth. ... NASCAR called four of the five cautions because of light rain.
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