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Kenseth makes it 2 in a row with California win

FONTANA, Calif. — It’s been 17 months since Jeff Gordon won a race that counted.

For a while Sunday at Auto Club Speedway it looked like the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion was going to put that streak to rest.

But red-hot Matt Kenseth wouldn’t let it happen.

After going through a winless and disappointing 2008 himself, the 2003 Cup champion is 2-0 in 2009, holding off Gordon to add a victory in the Auto Club 500 to his win the previous week in the Daytona 500.

“Just great team, great crew, great, great engines,” Kenseth bubbled in the aftermath of his 18th career victory. “You just need everything to go right, really, to win these races.”

At Daytona, Kenseth took the lead moments before rain, which eventually cut the race short, began to fall.

Sunday’s race was considerably more dramatic, with Kenseth fending off a determined challenge from Gordon to win for the third time on the 2-mile Southern California oval.

Kenseth took the lead from Gordon in the pits under caution with 38 laps to go in the 250-lap race and stayed ahead, pulling away over the last 20 laps. But it took a while for the winner to shake Gordon, making a desperate effort to get back to Victory Lane.

“I honestly thought that we were going to be too loose at the end and he was going to catch us,” Kenseth said. “Especially (when) I couldn’t get away from him that time he ran me down and got right on my bumper (on lap 231).”

But get away he did, beating Gordon’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to the finish line by 1.464 seconds – most of the front straightaway.

It is the first time a Cup driver has won the first two races of the season since Gordon did it in 1997 on the way to the second of his four championships.

The key to Kenseth’s win Sunday was a near-perfect pit stop that put him in the lead on lap 213.

“It’s such a great team,” Kenseth said. “I just thank these guys (on the crew). They gave me a great stop and got me in clean air and that’s just a huge difference.