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Matt Kenseth wins Auto Club 500 for second straight NASCAR Sprint Cup victory

FONTANA, Calif. — This time, Matt Kenseth went the distance, but he still did it faster than anybody else to win the Auto Club 500 on Sunday.

Kenseth, who won a rain-shortened Daytona 500 to open the Sprint Cup season, endured four short rain delays in the season's second race. But with the help of his pit crew, which several times got the No. 17 Ford off pit road first, Kenseth became the first driver since 1997 to win a season's first two points races.

The last driver to start the season with two victories was Jeff Gordon, who fought furiously to deny Kenseth this time but had to settle for second at Auto Club Speedway.

Gordon, trying to snap the longest winless streak of his career at 42 races, passed Kenseth for the lead on Lap 196 of 250 on the 2-mile oval but lost the race off pit road on a caution 12 laps later and couldn't catch up after that.

"I am so blessed, I have such a great race team," Kenseth said. "They gave me a great pit stop that got me the clean air. That was so important."

Gordon got near Kenseth's rear bumper on Lap 232, but Kenseth held on to win this race at Auto Club Speedway for the third time in four years.

"It was a lot of fun," Gordon said. "… I felt like we had what it took to win tonight. … (Kenseth) didn't make any mistakes. But I am really excited about this whole season."

Gordon, who has 81 Cup victories, No. 6 all-time, hasn't won a points race since October 2007 at Charlotte. But he won a 150-mile qualifying race this month at Daytona, then ran strong and finished 13th in the Daytona 500.

Roush Fenway Racing remained perfect in February races at this 2-mile track, winning its fifth in a row. Greg Biffle won this race in 2005, Kenseth in 2006 and 2007 and Carl Edwards last year.

Kyle Busch, who won the Nationwide and Truck series races here Saturday, was third. Biffle recovered from running over his air hose on pit road on his final stop to come in fourth.

But Biffle was unhappy with his error.

"They should fire me," said Biffle, one of Kenseth's four teammates. "You just can't make mistakes like that."

Brian Vickers, who had the fastest qualifying time Friday only to have to start in the back because of an engine change, rallied to finish 10th.

Zephyrhills' David Reutimann finished 14th and Tampa's Aric Almirola was 35th; Almirola's engine faltered with eight laps remaining.

STEWART SMILING: Tony Stewart was all smiles Sunday after his second straight eighth-place finish of 2009.

Stewart, who left Joe Gibbs Racing after last season to become co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, said repeatedly before the Daytona 500 that he didn't know what to expect from his new team.

So far, so good.

"I'm not really that good here," Stewart said. "It tells you the car is better than I am probably. (But) I think we're capable of doing it. I mean, we've done it two weeks in a row now."

CROWD NOISE: It appeared the grandstand, which holds 105,000 spectators, was more than half full. Speedway president Gillian Zucker was pleased with the numbers.

"To see this kind of a crowd in this grandstand says a lot, I think a heck of a lot, about how we've promoted this event and how much people are beginning to care about this sport the same way with the same passion as they have in the Southeast," she said.

The track has had trouble filling seats since NASCAR granted it a second Cup date in 2004.

Matt Kenseth wins Auto Club 500 for second straight NASCAR Sprint Cup victory 02/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2009 7:43am]

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