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Race recap: Gordon takes second, Johnson ninth at Auto Club Speedway

FONTANA, Calif. (Feb. 22, 2009)—Jeff Gordon led 64 laps, but couldn’t gain on eventual race winner Matt Kenseth during the final stretch of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday.

Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, crossed the finish line second—1.463 seconds behind Kenseth. Jimmie Johnson finished ninth, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. (39th) and Mark Martin (40th).

Gordon started the event in sixth and climbed to third by Lap 15. He ran in the top three for most of the evening and took the lead on Lap 88. Gordon would lead five times in the race, which was marked with four cautions for light rain. But the fifth and final caution—which was called on Lap 209 for an accident in Turn 1—gave Kenseth the chance he needed to take the front spot.

“Matt (Kenseth, race winner) was awful good in the pits as well as on the track,” Gordon said after the race. “That last run, we made one little adjustment.  I didn’t mind if he got out there 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.”

Gordon is ranked second in the driver standings, followed by Johnson (19th), Martin (27th) and Earnhardt (35th).

Johnson started the 500-mile event from the outside pole position and led the first 74 green-flag laps of the race. Handling became an issue for the No. 48 team, although Johnson never dropped from the top 10. He finished the race in ninth, recording his first top-10 finish of the young season.

“The car was so good all weekend, so we were really hoping for a win or a top two or three finish,” Johnson said. “But ninth is solid—can’t complain about that. We’ll take the points and look ahead to next week in Las Vegas.”

Martin and Earnhardt both climbed from their deep starting spots to run in the top 15, but suffered from engine issues late in the race.

Martin, driver of the No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet, started 35th and cracked the top 10 within the first 105 laps. By Lap 167, Martin reported to crew chief Alan Gustafson that his engine was fading. Gustafson instructed Martin to stay out during the following caution on Lap 171, which was the fourth one called for rain showers. The team hoped Martin would stay out, take the lead and win, should NASCAR call the race because of the weather.

“We had a great race car tonight,” Martin said. “It was fast; faster than the leaders most of the time. We were really trying to be careful and get up there when it counts. Then, after that caution, about two laps after, we had a valve break. We tried to play the weather game and it wasn’t in our favor this weekend. And once we restarted, there was just nothing we could do.”

Earnhardt also made an impressive run through the field during the first 100 laps, climbing from last to 14th place. Earnhardt’s No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet had to line up last after his team changed the transmission during Saturday’s practice.

“I drove from last to 14th,” Earnhardt said. “Nobody’s car is perfect. I am always going to work on it. I was running good, and I was going toward the front. I drove hard to stay on the lead lap. During that caution we were going, ‘All right, we got everybody here in front of us. Maybe we can get in the top 10 and get us a good finish.’ I felt like we had a good enough car. We had been running good all night.”

Now the Hendrick Motorsports teams are gearing up for Sunday’s 285-lap event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and nobody is more excited than Gordon.

“I’m fired up, man,” Gordon said. “I’ll tell you what, I can’t wait to get to Vegas. This car is awesome fast. We showed it at Daytona and we showed it here today. I’m so proud of (crew chief) Steve Letarte and all these guys. They work so hard and they’ve taken a lot of heat over the last year. And they’ve got what it takes this year to give me the stuff and it is a privilege to drive.”

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