FONTANA, Calif. — Matt Kenseth’s team has found some much-needed magic.
After going through a winless and disappointing 2008, the former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is 2-0 in 2009, adding a victory in Sunday’s Auto Club 500 to his win the previous week in the Daytona 500.
"Just great team, great crew, great, great engines," Kenseth bubbled in the aftermath of his 18th career victory. "You just need everything to go right, really, to win these races."
At Daytona, Kenseth took the lead moments before rain began to fall, a storm that eventually cut the race short.
Sunday’s race was considerably more dramatic, with Kenseth fending off a determined challenge from four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon to win for the third time on the two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval.
Kenseth took the lead from Gordon in the pits under caution with 38 laps to go in the 250-lap race and stayed ahead, pulling away over the last 20 laps. But it took awhile for the winner to shake Gordon, who also went winless last year and is desperate to get back to Victory Lane.
"I honestly thought that we were going to be too loose at the end and he was going to catch us," Kenseth said. "Especially (when) I couldn’t get away from him that time he ran me down and got right on my bumper (on lap 231)."
But get away he did, beating Gordon’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to the finish line by 1.464 seconds — most of the front straightaway.
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.
The key to Kenseth’s win Sunday was a near-perfect pit stop that put him in the lead on lap 213.
"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.
"Our car handled really good all day, and we had excellent pit stops. About the fourth one from the end, I started complaining and then, all of a sudden, they started getting me three or four spots every stop."
Earlier in the race, Kenseth, who led a race-high 84 laps, got out ahead and Gordon caught and passed him on a long green-flag run. But, after the final restart on lap 216, Kenseth found a way to stay in front.
At that point, both Kenseth and Gordon were much faster than the rest of the field. They steadily pulled away from the pack. But Gordon was unable to get to Kenseth’s rear bumper and get a real run on the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford.
"I thought he was going to pass us again," Kenseth said. "Some people think I’m a pessimist, but I think I’m more of a realist. … I don’t even know what we changed. It wasn’t easy, but we were able to hold them off."
Gordon, who has 81 career victories, hasn’t won a points race since October 2007 at Charlotte. But he did win a 150-mile qualifying race at Daytona, then ran strong and finished 13th last week in the rain-shortened 500.
"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," Gordon said.
Kyle Busch, who made NASCAR history by winning the truck and Nationwide races Saturday, came up short of a 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. Maybe one day."
Greg Biffle was a contender throughout the race but fell to 12th after being penalized for running over his own air hose on a pit stop on lap 209. He charged to fourth but still was upset by his mistake.
"They should fire me," said Biffle, one of four Kenseth teammates. "You just can’t make mistakes like that."
Kurt Busch finished fifth, followed by Denny Hamlin, 2008 race winner Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and three-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who led 74 laps but faded late.