March 26, 2017
By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
FONTANA, Calif. – What a difference one position makes.
After three straight second-place finishes in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, polesitter Kyle Larson finally found Victory Lane, pulling away after an overtime restart to win Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.
Larson took the checkered flag at the end of the second extra lap as team owner Chip Ganassi celebrated from his perch atop the pit box.
“It’s great to be Kyle Larson right now,” said the 24-year-old driver.
Resilient Brad Keselowski, whose spin on Lap 3 caused the first caution of the afternoon—and damaged his No. 2 Team Penske Ford—rolled home in second place, .779 seconds behind the driver variously known as “Young Money” and “The California Kid.”
Larson, who led a race-high 110 laps, kept his cool through four cautions and subsequent restarts over the final 21 laps, giving up the lead to pit for fresh tires on Lap 193 of a planned 200, as Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray stayed on the track.
But Larson quickly surged back to the front after a Lap 196 restart, passing Hamlin for the top spot through Turn 2 a lap later and holding it through the overtime.
“I was staying as calm as I could be, but also frustrated at the same time,” Larson said of the late-race stops and starts. “It seems like every time I get to the lead at the end of one of these things, the caution comes out and I’ve got to fight people off on restarts. Our Target Chevy was amazing all day. We were able to lead a lot of laps today. Truex was better than us that second stage by quite a bit. We were able to get the jump on him the following restart and led pretty much the rest of the distance.
“I had to fight them off there after the green flag stops (before the final caution), and that was a lot of fun. This is just amazing. We’ve been so good all year long, three seconds in a row. I’ve been watching all the TV like ‘He doesn’t know how to win,’ but we knew how to win today, so that was good.”
In posting his second career victory (the first coming at two-mile Michigan last year), Larson completed his first weekend sweep, having won Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series event.
Larson extended his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series lead to 29 points over second-place Chase Elliott, who finished 10th.
Clint Bowyer ran third, posting his best finish since June 2015 at Sonoma, where he also came home third. Truex, who opened a lead of more than eight seconds in winning the second 60-lap stage, was fourth, with Joey Logano recovering a lost lap with a late wave-around to finish fifth.
Keselowski cut a tire during a jam-up at the start of the race, the went for a ride off Jimmie Johnson’s bumper on Lap 3.
All things considered—among them a suspension to crew chief Paul Wolfe for an infraction last week at Phoenix—Keselowski was happy with his second-place result.
“We were tore all to hell,” Keselowski said. “Got tore up there really early in the race. Went all the way to the back, just clawed all the way up to second… The last few restarts were obviously key for us. We seemed to get settled into about 10th there, maybe seventh or eighth.
“Then kind of just executed the last few restarts. Good pit calls and so forth. Good timing with the yellows. We caught a few breaks, for sure, and made good adjustments to our car to make up for the damage. It takes a little bit of everything: good execution, good work by the team, and a little bit of luck on the last few yellows.”
Notes: With Keselowski having early troubles, Larson is now the only driver who has scored points in both the first and second stages in each of the five races this year… Twenty-first Jimmie Johnson maintained his perfect record at Fontana—but just barely. After a litany of issues throughout the race, Johnson got back on the lead lap as the “lucky dog” under the final caution. He has now finished on the lead lap in all 23 of his starts at Auto Club, completing all 5,306 laps raced at the speedway during his career.
Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images