FONTANA, CA (Sunday, March 26, 2017) – Coming off of an Xfinity Series victory and having claimed the pole during Friday qualifying, Kyle Larson was the clear favorite to win The 21st Annual Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday. Though his top three performances and credible late-race threats to win virtually every race in 2017 afforded him the point lead, cautions, calamity and pit strategy on final stops left Larson lacking a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win sticker thus far.
Today’s race played out much the same, but this time Larson and his Chip Ganassi Racing team persevered, beating a late-race charge from Martin Truex Jr.
“I had to battle [Truex] and he got by me and I was able to get back by him and kind of pull away a little bit, and then that’s when all the cautions started coming out,” Larson said in his post-race media interview. “The pit calls were great. The pit crew did an amazing job…A fairly clean race for us. Lots of fun to be Kyle Larson right now. Our race cars are really fast in Xfinity and Cup.”
Brad Keselowski battled through the day with a badly damaged race car to come home second. He became the first caution of the day on lap four, setting up an afternoon of tire conservation and pit strategy. Though Keselowski never appeared to be a factor to win, he surged for a second place result, building on a successful season that already has him locked into the 2017 playoffs.
“We were tore all to hell – gosh, it’s unfortunate,” Keselowski recalled. “We just clawed all the way up to second. I don’t know if we had anything for Kyle and those guys. The car was tore up pretty bad, so to get that kind of finish is pretty respectable. I certainly want to win. I feel like we had a shot to do just that, but it didn’t come together. That’s the way it goes sometimes…you’re gonna have some adversity and days that don’t go your way.”
Clint Bowyer, Truex Jr and Joey Logano, respectively, rounded out the top five. While Logano and Truex appeared to be late race contenders, Bowyer wasn’t a headliner most of the day.
Furniture Row Racing crew chief Cole Pearn made the decision to stay out and forgo new tires during a caution in the closing laps. Denny Hamlin and company also stayed out, boxing Larson against the outside retaining wall on the restart. Larson would eventually break free and retake the lead, but one final caution threw another obstacle in front of the 24-year old up-and-comer.
“I thought that race was never going to be over there at the end,” said winning team owner Chip Ganassi. “I thought we were having a pretty clean day there until the end.”
Ganassi spoke of a day that saw few caution periods until the final laps, with Matt Kenseth taking a nasty shot against the inside wall off of turn four. He would later be cleared by NASCAR medical staff at the infield care center, but was visibly and audibly shaken.
Jamie McMurray, Daniel Suarez, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott filled the final top ten positions. McMurray and Busch spent time in the lead pack, but Larson’s biggest threat seemed to come from Truex, who has a win to his credit this season.
Larson capitalized on his fast machine and his point lead entering the weekend. He took the stage one leader points and the victory points, while Truex grabbed extra points for leading stage two. Larson leads Elliott, Truex, Keselowski and Logano in the standings, unoffically, following the race. Only Elliott and Logano, of those, have yet to win in 2017.
Although further dissection is still to come at the NASCAR research and development facility, no rule infractions were discovered in post-race technical inspection.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season rolls on this weekend at Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway, with The STP 500, Sunday afternoon at 2PM ET. Fox Sports 1 airs the race live, with live radio broadcast on The Motor Racing Network and “Live from Pit Road,” an internet service featuring live tweets from race teams, driver representatives and more, available at Z3Sports.com.