Rookie crew chief now 2-for-2
Matt Kenseth didn't care about those goals. He wanted to stay perfect for 2009. When the stretch run came, he was the best of the best.
Yes, it rained again -- several times -- but Kenseth didn't need it this time. The Auto Club 500 went all 250 laps.
If you thought the rain-shortened Daytona 500 victory was a fluke, think again. Kenseth and his new crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, are the hottest duo in racing.
Better get used to that long, goofy last name, or just call him "Blick" for short. Whatever you call him, the 32-year-old new leader has pumped life into the No. 17 Ford team and found a way to bring out the best in Kenseth, a man who didn't win a race in 2008.
"Drew has brought magic to the team," said Roush Fenway Racing co-owner Jack Roush. "His dad was a [basketball] coach and Drew knows how to bring energy to a team. We had the same cars last year and Matt was the same guy. But Drew has brought a new dimension. We call it the Drew Factor."
The Drew Factor helped Kenseth become the first driver in 12 years to win the first two events of the season. The last man to do it? Gordon, who tried his best to keep Kenseth from accomplishing the feat.
Gordon's No. 24 Chevy was the best car most of the race, but Kenseth's crew was better every time on pit road. Kenseth got out first and forced Gordon to get on the wheel to catch him. And Gordon did on the next-to-last restart.
"He just ran me down and took off," Kenseth said of Gordon.
Kenseth expected a similar result after beating Gordon out of the pits on the last stop. But Blickensderfer's crew made an adjustment that kept Kenseth in front.
"I honestly thought we would be too loose at the end and Jeff would catch us," Kenseth said. "I don't know what my guys changed, but they got it just good enough at the end for me to hold him off."
Gordon hasn't won a points race in over a year, but he's convinced now his losing days will end soon.
"I'm so excited about this race team right now," Gordon said. "I feel we are head and shoulders above where we were a year ago. But I'm also bummed out we didn't win the race.
"I started to run Matt down at the end, and I thought, 'Oh, we got him.' But the car started getting tighter and tighter and just wouldn't turn. I knew with 20 laps to go we weren't going to get him unless he made a mistake. And Matt was perfect all night."
"Nothing is as big as winning the Daytona 500, but in a way, this feels better," Kenseth said. "These are the kind of races that make up the bulk of the schedule. How you run at these tracks will decide whether you make the Chase."
Kenseth's Cup championship came the year before the Chase format started. He's seen as the man who caused the playoff because he ran away with the title in 2003 and won without a serious challenge. But he's 0-for-5 in the Chase.
"I'm more confident coming to this year than I've felt in a long time," Kenseth said. "Drew has given us the leadership and spark we needed."
Auto Club Speedway got a much-needed spark, also. The Fontana track is the most maligned in NASCAR because of sparse crowds and bad on-track racing. Sunday's crowd still wasn't a sellout, but attendance was up (probably over 70,000) compared to both events last season.
And the racing was better, especially the fight up front in the final 35 laps. Gordon got side by side with Kenseth a couple of times, but couldn't get by him.
"It was a good show for the fans," said Kyle Busch, who watched it from about 20 car lengths back in third place. "It's the first good show they've had here in a while. It was great to see two superstars fight for the win like that."
Busch was hoping to become the first driver to win all three NASCAR events in the same weekend.
He made history Saturday as the first man to win two NASCAR national touring races in the same day, winning the Camping World Truck Series event and the Nationwide race.
Busch ran well Sunday in the No. 18 Toyota, but never seriously challenged for the victory.
"Our guys did a flawless job to try to get me there," Busch said. "But the 17 and 24 were far ahead of us tonight. We knew it would be a challenge. It didn't happen, but maybe it'll happen one day."
Maybe, but the best team won this race. It went the distance. No NASCAR call decided it and no lucky breaks were needed this time for Kenseth and Blick.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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