On a day at Auto Club Speedway when the dominant cars were Chevrolets from the Stewart-Haas Racing stable and Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas it was Brad Keselowski’s Penske Racing Ford that was rolled into Victory Lane after a last lap pass.
“This is one we’re going to sit back and go ‘wow’ for a while,” said the winning driver after the race.
Between them front row starters, and Stewart-Haas teammates, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch led 99 of the race’s original distance of 200 laps, but in the last two Keselowski passed both of them taking advantage of a late strategy call and a succession of late race cautions. On the other side of the afternoon’s divide Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth combined to lead another 99 laps, a single circuit ahead of Carl Edwards taking the JGR tally to a round 100. However, dramas on pit lane during the flurry of yellows in the final 30 miles would remove them from contention, both posting finishes outside of the top 25.
Kenseth led thirty laps up to the caution flag on lap 186, but as he tried to accelerate away from his pitbox the rear axle on the #20 Camry reached braking point, leaving him to trundle back to pitlane for the team to make makeshift repairs that returned him to track, albeit a lap behind. On a controversial caution debris on the penultimate lap Kenseth would get his lap back, becoming part of the problem for Hamlin when he was demoted to the back of the field after his pitcrew was deemed to lost control of a tyre during a stop.
With the late cautions allowing more and more drivers to regain the lead lap, either via the free pass or by taking the wave around, the penalty dropped Hamlin from 3rd to 30th. He would eventually finish 28th, Kenseth 31st with only Greg Biffle behind him on the lead lap.
Twice in the closing laps Biffle played a pivotal role. While Keselowski was taking four fresh tyres, Harvick and Busch two, Biffle, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart gambled by staying out. When the race restarted Biffle – the rearmost of the trio – was quickly swallowed by the chasing pack as drivers fanned out around turns one and two. As they all tried to funnel back towards the racing line on the exit Kyle Larson slapped the wall, the impact – and a little contact from David Ragan – dislodging the rear bumper panel from the Ganassi Chevy taking the race into a second green-white-checkered shootout.
In the mixing pot of the previous restarted Keselowski had risen from 17th to sixth, lining up in the preferred outside line for the ensuing restart. He was in the right place, and he knew he had the equipment to continue his progress. “For me,” he said. “that was knowing I had a car with newer tires that were stronger and faster, and if I picked the right lanes, if I read the cars in front of me just right, that I would pass them and win the race for our team.”
By the time the leaders exited turn two he was third after passing Paul Menard around the outside. A dive to the low line at the other end of the racetrack gave him second at Harvick’s expense and back at turns one and two he moved past Busch, who was seemingly on course victory before the lap 199 yellow, into the lead. And that may well have been that.
As Keselowski was taking the lead Biffle was spinning across the finish line, coming a stop in the middle of the track. The caution could have reappeared, but as Biffle drove out of the line of fire it gave Busch a final chance to take the lead back on the final corner. Pushing to the inside of the corner he came close to the back of the #2 car, but came up short, his momentum instead taking all the way to the outside wall, scrubbing off just enough speed to allow Harvick through into second to continue his off-season spanning streak of top two finishes.
“I knew we had a shot of a better day than what we were going to have when we cleared all those cars in one and two on the first restart,” said Keselowski. “So, you know, you don’t know how these things are going to work out. Sometimes you can restart fifth or sixth with four tires, you know, get caught up behind someone who doesn’t have tires, end up 10th. You just don’t know. It’s picking the right lane and hoping that it comes together.”
He continued: “When you win today, you temper that with the knowledge you’re going to lose one like this. You’re going to have a dominant car one day, and there’s going to come a sequence of fluke events that’s going to cost you a win. You’re going to look around and go, How did I lose? You’re going to be really angry.”
For his part Harvick wasn’t angry, putting the result down to experience.
“If the caution doesn’t come out for a second time, it’s 100% the right call,” he said of his two tyre final stop. “You can’t ever know what to plan on so you have to try to keep your track position and do the right thing.”
“There’s so many cars on the lead lap, you didn’t want to get buried in there. One little bad move for Brad, he would have been stuck in the middle of that traffic. But it all worked out for him.”
Paul Menard finished fourth ahead of Richard Childress Racing stablemate Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Joey Logano in seventh bounced back from a pitlane penalty. Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon completed the top ten. Tony Stewart fell to 14th in the closing laps.