FONTANA, Calif.—After Sunday’s Auto Club 400, there may be a warrant issued for Brad Keselowski.
After all, the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford committed his own version of “Grand Theft Auto” at Auto Club Speedway—he stole an entire race.
Benefitting from a four-tire call on the last lap of regulation and two opportune cautions that extended the event nine laps beyond its scheduled distance, Keselowski passed polesitter Kurt Busch on the final lap (209) and pulled away to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of the season.
Trying to make one last desperation run at Keselowski, Busch scraped the wall in the final corner at the two-mile track, allowing Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick to pass him for the runner-up spot.
Keselowski arrived at the finish line .711 seconds ahead of Harvick, simultaneously taking the checkered flag and leading his first lap of the day. The 2012 champion, who led the series with six victories last year, recorded his first victory at Fontana—and his first finish higher than 18th—and the 17th of his career.
“At the end, we caught some breaks, made the most of the breaks we
caught,” Keselowski said. “That was kind of the story of our race. It looked like we were probably going to finish sixth or seventh. That yellow came out (on Lap 185 for debris). We came in and pitted and drove up a little bit, then caught another yellow. Now what do we do?
“So (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) made the call to come down pit road and put four tires on. When he said that, I said, ‘This can either go really good or really bad.’ Didn’t know which one it was going to be. Some guys stayed out, some guys took two tires, all different types of strategies on the restart.
“We were able to find our way through the lanes and get to the front there, somehow end up in Victory Lane leading the last lap. Kind of a race car driver’s dream. This is one we’re going to sit back and go ‘Wow!’ for a while.”
Keselowski can call it a break, but it was theft, pure and simple. Aside from a stretch before the halfway point where Denny Hamlin got out front in clean air and led 56 laps, the cars of Busch and Harvick dominated the race, leading 65 and 43 laps, respectively.
But Keselowski’s Wolfe made what turned out to be the winning call on Lap 200, after NASCAR called the sixth caution of the race because of debris in Turn 4. Opting for four new tires, where the vast majority of the field took right sides only for track position, Keselowski restarted 18th on the first attempt at a green-white-checkered-flag finish on Lap 203.
The No. 2 Fusion quickly moved forward. When Kyle Larson lost his bumper cover during a melee on the restart, NASCAR threw caution No. 7, and by then, Keselowski was already up to seventh place.
Using the new tires to full advantage, Keselowski shot into second place like a lightning bolt after a green-white-checkered restart on Lap 208. As Greg Biffle crashed on the frontstretch on the white-flag lap, Keselowski rocketed past Busch off Turn 2 and pulled away for the win.
Busch came home third, followed by Richard Childress Racing teammates Paul Menard and Ryan Newman. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon completed the top 10.
Having won at Las Vegas and Phoenix in the previous two races, Harvick fell one position shy of completing a sweep of NASCAR’s three-race West Coast Swing, but he could commiserate with Busch, who was trying to win for the first time this season after serving a three-race suspension.
“I hate that the 41 (Busch) wasn’t able to hold on for the win there,” said Harvick, who posted his eighth straight top-two finish, dating to last year, and extended his series lead over Logano to 28 points. “I would have loved to see those guys get their first win.
“But you never know how the strategy is going to play out here. There’s so many cars on the lead lap, you didn’t want to get buried in there (by taking four tires). One little bad move for Brad, he would have been stuck in the middle of that traffic. But it all worked out for him. The second restart, he was in prime position up on the outside with fresh tires.”
Busch was disappointed but philosophical about the result.
“It was a solid day,” Busch said. “I don’t know what we could have done different. We just got pinned in by the yellows and the sequence at the end on which tires we needed to have to optimize how many laps were left.
“We had two tires; Keselowski had four. We didn’t need that extra yellow at the end. That last restart, I just didn’t get the job done, and I just got out muscled by Keselowski.”