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Kenseth accepts gift when engine failures strike at Auto Club 500

Monday, February 27, 2006

FONTANA, Calif. -- Even when he took the lead late in the 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 Sunday, winning the Auto Club 500 after the stronger cars of Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart went to the garage with late-race engine failures.

"I feel bad for Greg," Kenseth said. "He was really the class of the field all day. But 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 the 250-lap event brought out a caution flag and sent the leaders to pit road for their final stop. A great pit stop by the crew of Kenseth's No. 17 Roush Racing Ford 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 by winning from 31st in the 43-car field. "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 in the race on California's 2-mile oval. But Stewart, who had been running at the finish in 30 consecutive races, saw his race come to an end in a puff of smoke.

That appeared to hand an easy victory to Biffle. But it wasn't to be.

Last year's Cup runner-up -- first and second in the two California races last year and the Busch Series winner Saturday -- led 168 of the first 218 laps and built margins up to 13 seconds before he lost a cylinder in his engine on lap 225.

Once Biffle was gone from his rearview mirror, Kenseth easily held off Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson in a two-lap overtime shootout after the last of seven caution flags came out for a smoking car with only four laps remaining in regulation.

The race restarted on lap 250. Johnson tried to pass Kenseth on the outside in the first turn, but the leader held him off and pulled away, winning by 0.338 seconds -- about five car-lengths. Kenseth picked up the 11th victory of his career, but only his second in the last 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 both Kenseth and Biffle out of the pits on the final stop by the leaders. 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 place on the next restart and began to chase down his Roush Racing teammate 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."

Biffle thought about trying to finish the race, but had to head for the garage after a slow restart on lap 229.

"The 20 (Stewart) and I were pretty quick, but I think I got my car better," Biffle said. "He was good in the middle part of the race but I got my car really good here at the end.

"It's frustrating. It kind of drains you, but I've got to be optimistic about our season. We might have been better than the 17 (Kenseth), but now we'll never know."

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.

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 Racing made a strong comeback from a terrible day at Daytona, where the top-finisher was Mark Martin in 12th place. Besides the strong showing by Biffle and Edwards, team newcomer Jamie McMurray finished sixth and Martin ninth.

A year ago, Biffle won here with three teammates in the top seven and all five Roush entries finished in the top 12 here in September.


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