NASCAR: Round 2 – Auto Club 500, Fontana – 22 February

Matt Kenseth claimed a little bit of history by notching up back-to-back wins in the opening races of the 2009 Sprint Cup season, in a race notable for little incident and just a few weather jitters.

With the track relatively flat and not offering the punishing conditions of Daytona last week, the majority of the race was predictably uneventful – save for the weather, which brought out yellows for light rain on four seperate occasions. Two of those came out early on, with backmarkers taking the opportunity to come in for tyres and fuel as often as possible, but the front runners were predictably more reserved. Once the showers passed however we had a very long period of green flag racing, taking us well beyond the midway point and offering two green flag pit stop sequences.

Jimmie Johnson was the early dominant leader, leading all the green flag laps until lap 78 when Jeff Gordon suddenly cut the impressive gap Johnson had built up and cruised past into the leas, ironically just after he had brushed his number 24 car into the wall two laps earlier. With the track quickly cooling as twilight took over and the floodlights came on, Johnson’s handling went off a cliff and he complained of the car being too tight; Greg Biffle was quickly past him to take up second place behind Gordon.

Gordon continued to lead up until the pit stops on lap 128, when he and Biffle came into the pits together. Biffle easily beat him out to take the race lead, but Gordon was still close behind and jockeying for track position to overtake and regain the lead, with Johnson now a solid third ahead of Matt Kenseth, Kurt and Kyle Busch.

With such a prolonged period of green – 96 laps – only 16 cars were still on the lead lap (and David Stremme, Dale Earnhardt Jr., David Reutimann and Juan Montoya were all about to get lapped in the next few minutes) – it was a relief for many when a yellow came out on lap 141, once again for light rain this time on lap 3. Michael Waltrip got the free pass, as the cars streamed in for the pit stops.

After the stops, Juan Montoya stayed out to collect points for leading the lap, then came in to leave Matt Kenseth in front after he beat Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon out of the pits. Kurt Busch sneaked in front of Jimmie Johnson, who found himself in a Busch sandwich with Kyle right behind him in the number 18.

A fourth yellow for rain came out on lap 170, with Kenseth still comfortably leading. Jimmie Johnson had been second, but appeared to pop out of gear and lose ground allowing Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Kurt Biusch to stream past him for 2nd, 3rd and 4th. Brian Vickers got the free pass.

As the leaders pitted, Tony Stewart gambled on the rain continuing by staying out, joined by Juan Montoya, Mark Martin, David Stremme, David Reutimann and Michael Waltrip, making a very different temporary leading line-up before Kenseth back in 7th. Meanwhile, other cars were starting to struggle with reliability: Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were reporting increasing engine problems, Scott Speed had already gone to the pits with no power in his own engine, while David Ragan had dropped to the back of the pack some ten laps earlier with overheating problems.

The rain didn’t continue, and Stewart and co. had to pit before the green came out after all leaving Kenseth back on top. It continued to be Kenseth, Gordon, Biffle and Kyle Busch battling in the top five right through to the final pit stops on lap 209. The stops were held under yellow, the first caution to come out as a result of Kevin Harvick’s engine seizing resulting in him running up the track and into a crunching impact with the wall on lap 207.

It was Matt Kenseth once again who won the race out of the pits followed by Gordon and Busch; but Greg Biffle ran over his air hose and lost time and places, bumping him all the way back down to 11th. Jimmie Johnson fell back to 8th taking time for a chassis adjustment, while the hood went up on Jamie McMurray’s car for brake fluid, adding the number 26 to the sick list for the night.

At the restart, Kenseth and Gordon blazed off into the distance. Kyle Busch tried his best to stick with them, but the number 18 car simply wasn’t up to it: he was in an easy 3rd place but could do no more but watch on from a growing distance as Kenseth and Gordon battled it out to the chequered.

Initially it seemed that Gordon had the stronger car and was simply biding his time before making his move. But as the laps counted down, Gordon appeared to be struggling with tyre wear and when he needed to make his decisive move, the performance was no longer there – and Kenseth was unshakeable in the lead, right to the finish line.

The victory makes Kenseth only the fifth driver to win the first two races of a Sprint Cup season – the last time it was done was 1997 when Jeff Gordon puled it off. It’s even more impressive when one remembers that kenseth didn’t win a single race in all of 2008: his luck has well and truly turned, but the question now is whether or not he can keep this winning feeling going deep into the long NASCAR campaign.

FIN  ST  CAR  DRIVER              MAKE        PTS/BNS LAPS  STATUS
1    24  17   Matt Kenseth        Ford        195/10  250   Running
2    6   24   Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   175/5   250   Running
3    10  18   Kyle Busch          Toyota      165/0   250   Running
4    5   16   Greg Biffle         Ford        165/5   250   Running
5    4   2    Kurt Busch          Dodge       160/5   250   Running
6    23  11   Denny Hamlin        Toyota      150/0   250   Running
7    25  99   Carl Edwards        Ford        151/5   250   Running
8    11  14   Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   147/5   250   Running
9    2   48   Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   143/5   250   Running
10   1   83   Brian Vickers       Toyota      134/0   250   Running
11   15  42   Juan Montoya        Chevrolet   135/5   250   Running
12   22  9    Kasey Kahne         Dodge       127/0   250   Running
13   38  12   David Stremme       Dodge       129/5   250   Running
14   7   00   David Reutimann     Toyota      121/0   250   Running
15   42  55   Michael Waltrip     Toyota      118/0   250   Running
16   3   26   Jamie McMurray      Ford        115/0   250   Running
17   13  6    David Ragan         Ford        112/0   250   Running
18   37  28   Travis Kvapil       Ford        109/0   250   Running
19   21  33   Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   106/0   248   Running
20   16  96   Bobby Labonte       Ford        103/0   248   Running
21   14  47   Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      100/0   248   Running
22   17  43   Reed Sorenson       Dodge        97/0   248   Running
23   26  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge        94/0   248   Running
24   29  07   Casey Mears         Chevrolet    91/0   248   Running
25   20  19   Elliott Sadler      Dodge        88/0   248   Running
26   34  20   Joey Logano *       Toyota       85/0   248   Running
27   33  1    Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet    82/0   248   Running
28   28  39   Ryan Newman         Chevrolet    79/0   248   Running
29   8   44   A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge        76/0   247   Running
30   12  7    Robby Gordon        Toyota       73/0   247   Running
31   40  34   John Andretti       Chevrolet    75/5   247   Running
32   41  31   Jeff Burton         Chevrolet    67/0   247   Running
33   32  171  David Gilliland     Chevrolet    64/0   246   Running
34   39  41   Jeremy Mayfield     Toyota       61/0   245   Running
35   31  8    Aric Almirola       Chevrolet    58/0   242   In Pit
36   36  36   Scott Riggs         Toyota       55/0   240   Running
37   27  98   Paul Menard         Ford         52/0   221   Running
38   19  29   Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet    49/0   207   Running
39   35  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet    46/0   205   Out of Race
40   18  5    Mark Martin         Chevrolet    48/5   179   Out of Race
41   9   82   Scott Speed *       Toyota       40/0   172   Out of Race
42   30  66   Dave Blaney         Toyota       37/0    50   In Pit
43   43  187  Joe Nemechek        Toyota       34/0    36   In Pit
* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup Standings

After Auto Club 500, Auto Club Speedway, Race 2 of 36

RANK +/- DRIVER              PTS  BEHIND  STARTS POLES WINS TOP 5 TOP 10
1    --  Matt Kenseth        385  Leader  2      0     2    2     2
2    +10 Jeff Gordon         304  -81     2      0     0    1     1
3    +8  Kurt Busch          294  -91     2      0     0    1     2
4    +3  Tony Stewart        294  -91     2      0     0    0     2
5    +15 Greg Biffle         268  -117    2      0     0    1     1
6    -2  Clint Bowyer        266  -119    2      0     0    1     1
7    +1  Michael Waltrip     264  -121    2      0     0    0     1
8    -2  David Ragan         262  -123    2      0     0    0     1
9    +9  Carl Edwards        260  -125    2      0     0    0     1
10   +4  Juan Montoya        256  -129    2      0     0    0     0
11   -6  Elliott Sadler      248  -137    2      0     0    1     1
12   +1  David Reutimann     248  -137    2      0     0    0     0
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13   -10 A.J. Allmendinger   241  -144    2      0     0    1     1
14   +13 Denny Hamlin        235  -150    2      0     0    0     1
15   -6  Reed Sorenson       235  -150    2      0     0    0     1
16   -14 Kevin Harvick       219  -166    2      0     0    1     1
17   -7  Martin Truex Jr.    217  -168    2      1     0    0     0
18   +20 Kyle Busch          215  -170    2      0     0    1     1
19   +12 Jimmie Johnson      213  -172    2      0     0    0     1
20   -3  Marcos Ambrose      212  -173    2      0     0    0     0
21   -5  Casey Mears         209  -176    2      0     0    0     0
22   -1  Bobby Labonte       205  -180    2      0     0    0     0
23   +6  Kasey Kahne         203  -182    2      0     0    0     0
24   +9  David Stremme       193  -192    2      0     0    0     0
25   -6  John Andretti       181  -204    2      0     0    0     0
26   +14 Brian Vickers       180  -205    2      1     0    0     1
27   -12 Mark Martin         168  -217    2      0     0    0     0
28   +9  Jamie McMurray      167  -218    2      0     0    0     0
29   +3  Sam Hornish Jr.     161  -224    2      0     0    0     0
30   +12 Travis Kvapil       146  -239    2      0     0    0     0
31   -3  Jeff Burton         146  -239    2      0     0    0     0
32   -7  Scott Riggs         143  -242    2      0     0    0     0
33   +3  Ryan Newman         134  -251    2      0     0    0     0
34   --  Robby Gordon        134  -251    2      0     0    0     0
35   -9  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  133  -252    2      0     0    0     0
36   -6  Aric Almirola       131  -254    2      0     0    0     0
37   +6  Joey Logano*        119  -266    2      0     0    0     0
38   +3  Jeremy Mayfield     104  -281    2      0     0    0     0
39   --  Paul Menard         101  -284    2      0     0    0     0
40   -18 Regan Smith         100  -285    1      0     0    0     0
41   -6  Scott Speed*        98   -287    2      0     0    0     0
42   -19 Bill Elliott        94   -291    1      0     0    0     0
43   -19 Terry Labonte       91   -294    1      0     0    0     0
44   --  David Gilliland     64   -321    1      0     0    0     0
45   --  Dave Blaney         37   -348    1      0     0    0     0
46   -2  Joe Nemechek        34   -351    1      0     0    0     0
47   -2  Boris Said          0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
48   -2  Brad Keselowski     0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
49   -2  Kirk Shelmerdine    0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
50   -2  Mike Wallace        0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
51   -2  Tony Raines         0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
52   -2  Mike Garvey         0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
53   -2  Derrike Cope        0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
54   -2  Mike Skinner        0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
55   -2  Kelly Bires         0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
56   -2  Carl Long           0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
57   -2  Geoffrey Bodine     0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
58   -2  Norm Benning        0    -385    0      0     0    0     0
* Denotes Rookie
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