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 yesterday, 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 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 .338 seconds -- about 5 car-lengths. Kenseth picked up his 11th career victory.