Breaks fall Kenseth's way in California victory

Matt Kenseth knows what to do when good fortune smiles upon him. He earned a near-tearful victory at California Speedway because of it, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: February 26, 2007, 7:31 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- From one coast to the other, almost everything changed in one week of NASCAR's world. No cheating (well, no one was caught), lots of empty seats in the grandstands and no breathtaking finish.

Matt Kenseth
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIREMatt Kenseth, front, was too strong down the stretch for Jeff Gordon, middle, or Jimmie Johnson to catch up.

But one thing didn't change. Matt Kenseth won the Auto Club 500 for the second consecutive year at the California Speedway. This time, he did it without his crew chief.

Robbie Reiser is serving the second of his four-race penalty for a violation in Daytona qualifying. Kenseth isn't known as an emotional guy, but he was a little teary-eyed in Victory Lane.

"That was special one," Kenseth said. "This team was built by Robbie Reiser.

"It's cool to do this two years in a row and get some of our [50] points back from the Daytona penalty."

Kenseth knows he was lucky in this one. Another one of NASCAR's mysterious debris cautions and a late red flag were major factors in Kenseth winning.

With eight laps to go, Kevin Harvick was second and closing fast. Everyone watching had to wonder if Harvick was headed for another dramatic last-lap pass for the win, just as he did a week ago in the Daytona 500.

Kenseth was wondering the same thing while looking in the rear-view mirror of the No. 17 Ford.

"I was really worried," Kenseth said. "The 29 [Harvick] was running me down and I think he was going to pass me."

Harvick never got the chance. A nasty crash by David Reutimann brought the race to a halt with seven laps left. When it restarted under caution, Harvick realized he had a flat left-front tire.

Harvick took his bad luck in stride: "We consider this one of our two worst race tracks," he said. "So to run down the leader and have a chance to win is what it's all about."

The red flag was the second big break for Kenseth.

Jimmie Johnson had the field covered. He was more than two seconds in front of Kenseth with 25 laps to go when the yellow flag came out for debris on the backstretch.

"If anyone has seen the debris, I would like to know where it was," Johnson said laughing after the race. "I didn't see any debris, but I think we all knew [the caution] was coming."

The yellow flag brought the leaders to the pits, but Johnson's crew had a rare bad stop (14.7 seconds) dropping him to fifth on the restart.

Kenseth built a 1.2-second lead, but Harvick was zooming forward. He was less than half a second back when the red flag waved.

Jeff Gordon finished second and Johnson was third, but no one came close to catching Kenseth after the final restart.

"After the red flag I got my tires cooled down and ran a lot better," said Kenseth, who also won the Busch race Saturday. "That's why we were able to hold them off."

Tony Stewart might have beaten them all if not for a mental mistake with 93 laps to go. For the second consecutive week, something went bad while he was leading the race.

Kevin Harvick
AP Photo/Matt SaylesKevin Harvick looked like he had a car that could win the race until a flat tire ended his chances.

Stewart was caught speeding on pit road during a green-flag stop, forcing a drive-through penalty and moving him back to 22nd. He finished eighth.

Kenseth was the only Ford driver in the top 14. Five Chevys finished behind him and one Toyota cracked the top 10.

Brian Vickers, who failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 last week, gave Toyota its best Cup finish yet with a 10th-place showing in the No. 83 Camry.

Kenseth's victory was the fifth at California for team owner Jack Roush, but the first under the new name of Roush Fenway Racing. Roush announced at Daytona that he sold 50 percent of his operation to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry.

Mark Martin, the man who was the co-owner of Kenseth's car, now leads the points standings. Kenseth's former teammate backed up his runner-up finish at Daytona with a fifth-place effort Sunday in the No. 01 Chevy.

But Martin says he's only running a partial schedule. Right.

That's about as believable now as California Speedway officials claiming 87,000 were in the stands Sunday. Sure it's Academy Awards night, but it's baffling why the second-largest market in the country can't sell all 92,000 seats for a Cup race.

Maybe the Hollywood crowd needed a few soap-opera scandals like Daytona offered. But the weekend was free and clear of any debauchery.

Kenseth is 12th in the standing after two races, but he would be fifth if not for the Daytona punishment.

Come November, it won't matter one iota. He'll be in the Chase and contend for the title if he catches a break or two. As we saw Sunday, that's all he needs.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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