Even when he took the lead late in Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup race at California Speedway, Matt Kenseth didn't expect to win.
"I was sort of planning on running second," Kenseth said, grinning.
But the 2003 Cup champion got a gift, winning the Auto Club 500 after the stronger cars of Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart went to the garage late with engine failures.
"I feel bad for Greg," Kenseth said of his Roush Racing teammate. "I feel like we had the second- or third-best car. We had a great handling car all day."
Stewart's blown engine on Lap 214 of 250 brought out a caution flag and sent the leaders to pit road for the final time. A great pit stop by Kenseth's No. 17 Ford crew got him out ahead of Biffle but, until smoke began spouting out of the exhaust on Biffle's No. 16, Kenseth didn't expect to stay ahead.
"We made some adjustments on that last pit stop," said Kenseth, who set a track record for worst start by a winner, 31st. "That gave me confidence for the longer run, but Greg was pretty quick on a long run. When he was back there, I totally assumed he was going to run us down on a long run."
Two-time and reigning Cup champion Stewart led only 28 laps but overcame a botched pit stop and a flat tire to come from a lap down and challenge Biffle late on California's 2-mile oval. But Stewart, who had been running at the finish in 30 consecutive races, saw his race end in a puff of smoke.
Then Biffle lost a cylinder in his engine on Lap 225. After that, Kenseth held off Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson in a green-white-checkered finish after the last of seven caution flags came out for a smoking car with four laps remaining.
The race restarted on Lap 250. Johnson tried to pass Kenseth on the outside in Turn 1 but the leader held him off and won by 0.338 seconds, about five car lengths. Kenseth picked up his 11th victory but only his second in the past 72 races. He led 40 laps, including the final 33, giving Ford its first Cup victory with the new Fusion model.
Three-time California winner Jeff Gordon changed only two tires and beat Kenseth and Biffle out of the pits on the leaders' final stop. Kenseth passed Gordon for the lead on the restart on Lap 219, as another caution flew for the spinning car of Stanton Barrett, and Biffle grabbed second on the next restart before his engine let go.
Stewart, who wound up 43rd, right behind Biffle, shrugged off his disappointment.
"It was a good day but a bad day," he said. "We overcame some things and I think we're going to have a good car all year. It was really a pretty impressive effort, but I don't think we had anything for Biffle there."
Johnson had another strong showing with lead engineer Darian Grubb substituting for crew chief Chad Knaus, sidelined for the second of four races after being suspending by NASCAR for using an unapproved part on the No. 48 Chevrolet in qualifying at Daytona.
"Darian should just retire, the way I look at it," Johnson said, grinning. "He has four races. Then he should just hang it up and say, "Man, I was a crew chief and I won the Daytona 500' and call it quits."
Johnson maintained his points lead and Casey Mears, who finished seventh in the race, stayed in second. Kenseth rose to third.
Carl Edwards, another Roush driver and last year's third-place finisher in the points, came back from a last-place showing in Daytona to finish third, followed by Kasey Kahne and Jeff Burton.
Roush made a strong comeback from a terrible day at Daytona, where its top finisher was Mark Martin in 12th. Team newcomer Jamie McMurray finished sixth and Martin ninth.
In last year's spring race, Biffle won here with three teammates in the top seven. In September, all five Roush entries finished in the top 12.
NEXTEL CUP LEADERS
Through two of 36 races. The top 10 and all others within 400 points after 26 races are in the Chase for the Championship and are the only drivers eligible to win the title.
Driver Car Pts Back
Jimmie Johnson Chevy 355 -
Casey Mears Dodge 316 39
Matt Kenseth Ford 308 47
Kasey Kahne Dodge 295 60
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevy 287 68
Mark Martin Ford 275 80
Ryan Newman Dodge 273 82
Clint Bowyer Chevy 271 84
Brian Vickers Chevy 260 95
Elliott Sadler Ford 259 96
- Standings are unofficial. NASCAR releases official standings today.
TIME OF RACE: 3 hours, 23 minutes, 43 seconds.
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.338 seconds.
WINNER'S AVERAGE SPEED: 147.852 mph.
CAUTION FLAGS: Seven for 26 laps.
LEAD CHANGES: 18 among 9 drivers.
LAP LEADERS: Kurt Busch 1-5; Biffle 6-35; Kurt Busch 36; Biffle 37-59; Stewart 60-79; Kenseth 80-81; Stewart 82-89; Kenseth 90-92; Kurt Busch 93; Kenseth 94-95; Biffle 96-135; Martin 136; Yeley 137-138; Biffle 139-182; Kahne 183; Earnhardt 184; Biffle 185-215; J.Gordon 216-218; Kenseth 219-251.
UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400, 4:30 p.m. March 12, Las Vegas Motor Speedway. TV: Ch. 13.