Minutes before the end. (Photo by: Dicken Wear)
The Happy Crew. (Photo by: Dicken Wear)
After the Checker. (Photo by: Dicken Wear)
A Very Happy Chip Ganassi. (Photo by: Dicken Wear)
Only time I saw Chad Johnston smile. (Photo by: Dicken Wear)
One Happy Race Driver. (Photo by: Dicken Wear)FONTANA, Calif. – Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series leader and Elk Grove, Calif. native Kyle Larson (No. 42, Target Chevrolet) made Auto Club Speedway home sweet home this weekend and atoned for runner-up finishes in each of his previous three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series starts by pulling into victory lane at the 21st Annual Auto Club 400 Sunday.
Larson’s second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in 116 starts comes on the heels of winning the pole position for the race on Friday and winning Saturday’s XFINITY Series Service King 300 race. He is the first driver to win both races and the Cup Series qualifying run in one weekend at Auto Club Speedway.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary throughout 2017, Auto Club Speedway hosted its 28th NASCAR Cup Series race – second all-time among active California racetracks – and crowned its 16th winning NASCAR Cup Series driver.
“Lots of fun to be Kyle Larson right now,” Larson said. “Our race cars are really fast in XFINITY and Cup. Our cars are, by far, the best they’ve ever been. I feel I have a shot to win at every race track. I came out of (Turn) 4 (on the final lap) and I told them (the crew team) on the radio to put the bridesmaid’s dress back in the closet. I don’t want to wear that ever again. It was a solid weekend. Definitely the best of my NASCAR career.”
Larson, 24, is the fourth driver to sweep the weekend of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY races at Auto Club Speedway, following the lead of Kyle Busch (2013), Matt Kenseth (2007) and Kasey Kahne (2006).
Larson, who finished second at Auto Club Speedway during his rookie year in 2014, led for 110 laps overall and increased his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season points lead to 29 over Chase Elliott.
2015 Auto Club 400 champion Brad Keselowski (No. 2, Wurth Ford) endured a battle of attrition as his car was hit four laps into the race and on another occasion. Yet, he gradually worked his way back to a runner-up finish.
Recording his eighth top-10 finish in 17 career Auto Club Speedway starts and his fourth top-10 finish on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit this year, Keselowski encountered a fender bender with six-time Auto Club Speedway champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48, Lowe’s Chevrolet) in Turn 4, leading to the race’s first caution flag.
“I got ran over the back and it did a lot of damage to the car. And then I got ran over again. The car was all torn up,” Keselowski said. “A lot of adversity but we were able to overcome it. We executed after the restarts. It takes a little bit of execution, good work by the team and luck the last few yellows.
“By the time things cleared up, Kyle (Larson) was far gone. It’s impressive to me that he’s been able to sustain it a handful of weeks in a row to start the new season. You knew this was going to be a good track for him, and it’s the type of track that suits his style the best.”
Clint Bowyer (No. 14, Rush Truck Centers Ford) placed third after starting the race from the 17th position. It was Bowyer’s eighth top-10 finish in 17 races at Auto Club Speedway. Daniel Suarez (No. 19, Subway Toyota) placed as the highest-finishing rookie, in seventh.
The Auto Club 400 featured 17 lead changes among eight different leaders, and seven caution flags for a total of 29 laps. Four of the race’s five caution flags that weren’t related to stage finishes dropped in the last 20 laps.
A caution prompted Larson to pit and further refresh his tires with seven laps to go. Only three cars stayed out of pit row during this caution including Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78, Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Toyota), who was running second at the time. The move paid off for Larson as he restarted third and regained the lead on Lap 197. One more late caution, on Lap 198, pushed the race’s final lap tally to 202.
“I was just trying to stay calm and focused on what was ahead of me and what I needed to do in the restarts,” Larson said. “Seems like every time I get in the lead in one of these NASCAR races, a lot of cautions drop.”
2016 Auto Club 400 winner Johnson began the race in 37th position (out of 39) and placed 21st. He fell two laps back of the leader in the first half of the race.
The first two 60-lap stages of the Auto Club 400 were won by Larson and Truex Jr. in succession, with Larson winning the final 80-lap stage at Auto Club Speedway’s two-mile oval. (Story Courtesy of ACS Media Office).