Keselowski ruins SHR domination at Auto Club Speedway
Flag to Flag: Would Kevin Harvick continue his domination this week? Could his teammate Kurt Busch score a win in his second race back from suspension? Could the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota's sustain speed and notch Toyota's first win in almost a year? The cliche, "There's a reason we run the whole races," sure applied in Sundays Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway - it actually turns out the extra nine laps spread over two green-white-checkered finishes decided the race. Brad Keselowski foiled the above plot lines to win his first race of the season and only needed the last lap to do it at a track in which he had never even notched a top 10.
The day's dominating cars were those of Harvick (2nd) and Busch (3rd). Busch started on the pole, was fast in practice, and led the most laps (65) in the race. No. 41 crew chief Tony Gibson made the call to take two tires and start ahead of the other leaders that pitted on the debris caution just before lap 199. Harvick took four tires and poached 2nd away from Busch, as Busch scraped the wall when he made a last stab at Keselowski. Harvick also led 35 laps in the 200-lap event and scored his 8th-straight top-two finish. Astounding. His No. 4 Chevy was fast. but not quite as dialed-in as Busch's.
Joe Gibbs Racing seemed to have the number and the chance to break up Stewart-Haas Racing's stranglehold on the weekend. Denny Hamlin (28th) led 56 laps in his No. 11 Toyota, but scraped the wall just before the last debris caution and also got an uncontrolled tire penalty on the final pit stop. from which he did not recover. On the pit sequence before, Kenseth entered the pits as the leader, but broke an axle exiting his pit. His crew replaced it, but Kenseth could only maintain 31st at the end.
Many pitted on that lap 199 debris caution, but Tony Stewart (14th), Jeff Gordon (10th), and Greg Biffle (32nd) stayed out. When the green fell, Biffle and his slow Roush-Fenway Racing Ford dropped like an anchor through the field. Stewart fell back to 9th and Gordon stayed 3rd. Then the final restart saw Busch and Harvick, who wasted no time getting back out front. Kyle Larson (26th) restarted near the front, but started sliding back through the field, got bottled up behind Biffle, and washed up into the outside wall. Larson's rear bumper cover flew up and brought out a debris caution again, setting up the final restart.
On the race's final green, Busch got a good start, but Keselowski got a great run and launched past Harvick and to the outside of Busch. Just after he took the lead, Biffle crashed on the front straightaway. But he got going again and NASCAR left the race green and Keselowski thwarted a final charge from Busch to score his first win of the season and 17th of his career. The finish was also his first top 10 at ACS.
The top 10 were Keselowski, Harvick, Busch, Paul Menard (held ground on crazy restart at end), Ryan Newman (3rd top 5 of season, ran best at the end), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (top 10 car most of day), Joey Logano (bounced back from pit road penalty), Martin Truex Jr. (battled ill-handling car all day and still got top 10), Jimmie Johnson (faded from the top 5 in the restarts melee), and Gordon. Harvick leads Logano by 28 in the standings and Truex Jr. by 33 points. Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray are tied for 16th points (and the final spot in the Chase), but McMurray would get the spot, because he has the highest single-race finish out of the two.
Much like Atlanta Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway has become a fun place to see races. The multiple grooves and wide racing surface make for some especially exciting restarts, with drivers jousting high and low. A sellout crowd at ACS saw the best cars stay out front and one of the dark horses in Keselowski steal the win at the end and seal his way into the 2015 Chase.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kurt Busch - Not two weeks ago, Busch was sidelined with an indefinite suspension and missed a race at his home track. Last week saw him place 5th at Phoenix and this week saw him fast all weekend, leading the most laps, and within a whisker of his first win in a year. Busch is most obviously razor-focused and driven as much as he has ever been. NASCAR returns next week to the site of Busch's last win a year ago at Martinsville Speedway.
North Korean Missile Dud: Joe Gibbs Racing - Two of the four cars in the stable led a bunch of laps, but Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin ran into problems in the end and finished outside of the top 25. David Ragan started 4th, got spun out, and could only climb to just inside the top 20. Carl Edwards wrecked his primary car and could never get his backup piece inside the top 10. For as much strength as JGR showed through the weekend, the team struck out by race's end.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Chris Buescher - How about this kid? Lots of buzz surrounds this Roush-Fenway Racing driver for his work in the Xfinity Series. He got to call to sub for Brett Moffitt, who was subbing for Brian Vickers, who got the news just before the race weekend of the medical issues that sidelined him. Buescher ran the No. 34 for Front Row Motorsports and was just outside of the top 30 most of the race. But the late cautions caught him up and he passed several cars to finish 20th in his Sprint Cup debut. A nod also goes to Justin Allgaier, who finished a career-high 12th for HScott Motorsports.
Wheel of Misfortune: Brian Vickers - Doctors found another blood clot in Vickers' leg, putting him on the sidelines for the fourth time in his career. Vickers missed most of 2010, the last few races of 2013, and the first two races this season with similar problems. He is on blood thinners now and likely will miss three months. Brett Moffitt piloted the No. 55 Toyota to a 22nd-place finish Sunday and likely will get to drive most of the races during Vickers' absence.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Brad Keselowski - He and Kevin Harvick both capitalized on their four fresh tires in the closing laps to knife past the cars that took two and the ones that stayed out. Keselowski won and Harvick finished 2nd yet again.
Ghost Driver: Kyle Larson - The sophomore driver finished runner-up to Kyle Busch last season at ACS and won there in the NXS race a year ago. But Larson and his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray struggled all race long. Larson fluctuated inside the top 10 and 15 and was as high as 6th in the closing laps. But he just never could get up front. People keep picking Larson to finally breakthrough and win...and we keep waiting. This weekend looked like a good chance for that, up until the race started.
RaceTweet: Brad Keselowski steals a win at Auto Club Speedway, while Stewart-Haas Racing shines with Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick. Debris cautions change the course yet again.
Georgia on My Mind: David Ragan seemed primed to have a a big weekend in the No. 18 Toyota that had won the last two ACS races. After starting 4th, Ragan started sliding back and battled for several laps with Jeff Gordon for the 7th spot. Gordon couldn't clear him and when he did, Ragan surged to the outside and the air got Gordon loose. Gordon then got right up on Ragan's left-rear quarter panel and aero-spun him out .Ragan got trapped a long time off the lead lap, but the late cautions caught him back up to 18th at the end. Reed Sorenson again failed to qualify the RAB Racing Toyota for the race. The NXS race saw Kevin Harvick spank the field. His JR Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott struggled by his standards, but rallied to 4th. Ryan Sieg never had a chance, but finished 20th. John Wes Townley was 23rd.
NXS RaceTweet: Harvick dominates ACS, gets 2nd win of year ahead of NXS regulars Gaughan, Jones, Elliott, and C. Buescher.
Next: The NXS gets a couple of weeks off, while the Sprint Cup Series heads back east to Martinsville Speedway for Sunday's race at 1 p.m. on FOX and MRN. And the Camping World Truck Series returns from a one-month break to Martinsville as well. Any hashes that flared up in the first month of the season can get settled - or made worse - on the ½-mile paperclip in Virginia. This coming weekend ought to be a barnburner at NASCAR's first short track races of the season.