By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
It's almost fitting that a most unlikely winner of the first two Cup races of 2009 has kicked off what many expected would be a most unlikely season by most NASCAR standards.
By that measure, it's not really a surprise then that Matt Kenseth proved his rain-shortened win at Daytona last week was no fluke, coming back Sunday to win in thrilling fashion in the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway.
No, that's not an oxymoron: Kenseth indeed won a hell of a race at a place that few people likely felt they would ever see such a finish at.
Yet after several years of being the butt of complaints about poor crowds, lackluster and boring racing, ACS on Sunday gave us the quintessential way a race should end up, a culmination of thrilling action and edge of your seat, nail-biting excitement.
Was it going to be Kenseth, Jeff Gordon or Kyle Busch who was going to win? We didn't know until the last lap. Sure, Busch may have faded slightly in the final laps, but he was still part of an incredible show.
Who would have thought it would have played out the way it did, at the place it did?
And that's what made Sunday's race all the more special. It wound up being a tale of three drivers who desperately wanted a win, but at the same time, were all tied together by something entirely different: a quest for redemption.
Kenseth is the type of driver who, while mild-mannered and fairly quiet compared to some of his peers, doesn't really care much about what other people think of him.
Still, there was some lingering questions and doubt by many cynics that Kenseth's win at Daytona was less than a full showing, as he took home the checkered flag 48 laps shy of what was supposed to be the scheduled finish.
The way Kenseth drove through the pack Sunday was reminiscent to the way he won last week at Daytona – and rain, which caused several cautions at Fontana, threatened to make it two consecutive races that were shortened by precipitation.
But once again, there was the No. 17 Ford at the front and at the end as Kenseth did for the second time in two races what he failed to do even once last year: to win.
The final laps of Sunday's race was also a bid for redemption by runner-up Gordon. He knows all too well what Kenseth went through last season, for he also was shut out of victory lane in 2008.
We saw a Jeff Gordon that we haven't seen in a long time, driving like the same guy in his prime of winning four Cup championships in eight seasons. As the final laps counted down, millions watching on TV likely wondered if maybe Gordon was so hungry for a win – after all, he hasn't been to victory lane since October 2007 – that he'd once again punt Kenseth for the win, like he did a few years back at Chicago.
Some might not even blame Gordon if he did, for he wants to get back to victory lane in the worst way. Sunday, he almost did, but he played it clean, fair and square and gave his millions of fans hope that the end of his confounding winless streak may very well be over – perhaps as early as this coming Sunday at Las Vegas.
And then there was the younger Busch brother, who was seeking to make NASCAR history for the second consecutive day. On Saturday, he became the first driver in NASCAR annals to ever win two races on the same day, capturing both the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series events at ACS.
Sunday, Busch sought to become the first driver to ever win races in all three major pro series on the same weekend. And while he may have fallen short, he managed to get his own sort of redemption as well.
For while Dale Earnhardt Jr. caused Busch to wreck and lose last Sunday what appeared to be his best chance ever to win the Daytona 500 to date, his rebound at Fontana showed Busch is not only back from last week, but he's also back from last year's tailspin in the Chase.
Unfortunately, there's a significant bit of sadness in all the redemption that unfolded and ultimately emerged in Sunday's closing laps. After all, this was still Auto Club Speedway – formerly California Speedway – a place where good races just aren't supposed to happen, at a place whose picture many feel should be put in a dictionary alongside the meaning of the word "boring."
As a result, the crowd on-hand was one of the smallest the Southern California facility has ever seen. Fox Sports seemed to intentionally keep the grandstands out of camera range so as not to show the glut of empty seats all the way around the 2-mile motorplex.
And, given how late the race began (6:15 pm ET) and how late it finished (after 10 pm ET), it's practically a given that when the TV ratings are released Monday, the numbers are going to be poor, indicating the overall small viewership that likely grew even smaller as the race went on as many viewers clicked off the telecast, expecting yet another boring race and even more boring outcome.
Just like those who left the track early to beat what little crowd there was to beat, it was the same for many viewers: they felt that because this was Auto Club Speedway, there just was no point to stick around and watch the finish.
Well, guess what, folks – you wound up being the biggest losers of all. You missed a hell of a finish at the most unlikeliest of places, and in a season that looks like it's going to continue to give us a lot more unlikely finishes, storylines and winners.
And isn't that exactly what race fans want in the first place?