By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
FONTANA, Calif. – For a while, fans have complained about a lack of competition in NASCAR, pointing to single-file racing in recent seasons and a perceived lack of passing with the new Car of Tomorrow.
And on a weekend when much was written about Auto Club Speedway’s difficulty in filling their seats, those same detractors saw one of the most dramatic finishes in quite some time. During the final segment of the race, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon alternated posting the fastest lap one after the other until the No. 24 finally started to fade.
Four cautions flew at the start of the race and all of them came for brief rain showers. That allowed teams to dial in their cars and stalk the checkered flag. At the end of the night, the No. 17 crew consistently won the battle out of the pits, which contributed to the drama.
The third caution of the night came out on lap 171 and Kenseth beat Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Gordon back onto the track. In the second to last segment, it took less than 20 laps for the No. 24 to chase down the leader and both Kenseth and Gordon thought the same thing would happen during the final green flag run, after Kevin Harvick blew an oil filter off his engine, skidded in his own moisture and pounded the wall in turn one.
Harvick failed to finish his first race in 82 starts; the last time he prematurely left a race due crash damage came more than 120 races ago in the 2005 Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
That set up an epic battle between the two most dominant drivers of the evening.
"Man, that 17 and 24 were just so strong," third-place finisher Kyle Busch said. "It looked like the 18 (Busch’s Nationwide car) and 51 (his Truck) yesterday."
Kenseth thought Gordon would get the best of him, fearing that the four-time champ was playing a game of cat and mouse with him as the final laps played out.
"I thought (Gordon) was going to pass us," Kenseth said. "When we took off the run before, we got the lead and he ran me right down. I honestly thought we were going to be too loose and he was going to catch us."
Instead of Kenseth getting loose, however, Gordon became too tight.
"Matt was awful good in the pits as well as on the track," Gordon said. "That last run, we made one little adjustment. I didn't mind if he got out (of the pits ahead) on us, but when I started running him down, I was like, 'We got him, we got him.' Then my car started getting tighter and tighter and tighter.
"As I got to him, I moved around, went to every groove I could possibly find, and the car just wouldn't turn. I kind of knew with about 20 to go that we probably—unless he made a mistake—weren't going to get him."
If Gordon had been able to pass him, he would have snapped a 42-race winless streak, which is the longest of his career. It would also have put an end to talk about his winless 2008 season.
One way or the other, the reported 78,000 fans in the stands – although the crowd seemed substantially smaller – were going to get a heck of a story.
In the Auto Club 500, they could pick their storyline, no matter if they were a Matt Kenseth fan, a Jeff Gordon fan, a Kyle Busch fan or a fan of Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge.
"I had the best seat in the house for that battle," Busch said. "It was pretty cool to see those guys racing like that. It was a good show for the fans, their first good race they’ve had out here in a while."
The only thing lacking at the start of the race for Kenseth was domination in the pits.
"About the fourth (pit stop) from the end, I started complaining and then all of a sudden they started getting me three or four spots every stop," Kenseth continued. "The pit stops were really important to our outcome."
Gordon knows better than anyone else what Kenseth’s accomplishment meant. Prior to Sunday night, it had been more than a decade, back to 1997 when Gordon followed a Daytona 500 victory with a first-place result in the Goodwrench 400 at Rockingham Speedway.
"Daytona is such a different type of race, restrictor-plate racing," Gordon said. "Last week it was about staying away from the crash, being there at the right time, making the move. You got to give those guys credit for being in the position they were in when the rain came and the caution. But still a great race for him.
"You know, tonight was to me a sign of what we were gonna see more of this season. Those guys were incredible in the pits. I mean, he was (also) good on the track."
Should something have happened to the two leaders, Busch would have provided his own storyline. One day after winning two races in NASCAR’s top series for the first time in their history, he was going for the weekend trifecta, which would have also been a record.
"We wish we could have won that race, that’s for sure and pulled off the triple, but we’ll take that," Busch said. "Our car was decent there in the beginning, then we just kept working on it making it better and we got up there. That’s all that matters."