Kyle Larson finally got the winning touch at Auto Club Speedway, extends points lead on Brad Keselowski.
No. 2 has become a frustrating norm for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader Kyle Larson, finishing second the last three consecutive races and been shut out of victory lane since his maiden win at Michigan last August.
Another runner-up finish would tie Harry Gant’s mark from 1985 with four straight second place finishes but it wasn’t the case in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Fontana, California.
A late pit stop paid off for Larson’s No. 42 Target Chevrolet and held off the No. 2 Wurth Ford of Brad Keselowski to win his second career Cup Series victory at Auto Club Speedway.
Larson’s victory extended his points lead by 29 points over co-second place drivers Keselowski and Chase Elliott.
In an interview, Larson said each runner-up finish has helped him become a strong contender for wins.
“I’ve learned from those losses and became calm each time,” Larson said. “I stayed calm throughout those late cautions. It allowed me to be aggressive and get out into clean air fast. It’s pretty cool to be the points leader coming into the race and leaving Fontana pulling away as the points leader.”
For 180 laps, there was only one caution for an accident but a crash by Gray Gaulding started a string of cautions.
Drivers pitted for fresh tires as Larson exited pit road as the leader.
On the restart, Matt Kenseth got tapped by Martin Truex, Jr. entering turn two, careening Kenseth into the infield wall.
It marked Kenseth’s second consecutive race he has crashed, the third retirement of 2017 and finished 36th.
Kenseth said the accident was a result of a poor restart and Truex, Jr. making contact.
“I didn’t do a very good job getting through the gears and got me into that spot,” Kenseth said. “The No. 1 (Jamie McMurray) got outside of me and tried to leave room for him. We were coming up to three wide off turn two and got hit (by Truex, Jr.) in the left rear and turned around.”
After the race, Truex, Jr. apologized for hitting Kenseth.
“I feel awful about the accident,” Truex, Jr. said. “I think we were both moving at the same time. I was still coming up and Kenseth started to come down and got together.”
Larson again restarted in first but a spin by Corey LaJoie on lap 193 brought out another caution.
The caution pressured crew chiefs whether to pit their driver or keep them out for track position.
Larson’s crew chief Chad Johnston called Larson to pit for four fresh tires but Truex, Jr., Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray stayed out.
The no-pit strategy put Hamlin in first as Larson restarted fourth on lap 196.
In a post-race conference interview, Johnston said the decision to pit was easy because of the early tire fall off at Auto Club Speedway.
“You get two or three laps on your tires, you’re on a disadvantage,” Johnston said. “I always tried to put Kyle in a position to be the aggressor. I don’t feel like there’s anybody that’s going to be any better on a restart than what he will be especially if I can give him tires.”
Larson said the number of laps on a set of tires played an important role on pitting rather than staying out in front.
“Tires are so important when you come to race tracks like Auto Club Speedway,” Larson said. “We ran probably three or four laps on our tires and that’s a big deal. We came down pit road and got the sticker tires. Three guys stayed out which was perfect for me to line up fourth.”
Larson wasted no time pick pocketing cars and passed Hamlin on the inside for the race’s 17th lead change two laps later.
As soon as Larson passed Hamlin, the caution came out for the final time as Roush Fenway Racing teammates Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. collided in turn one.
Bayne slid into his teammate, resulting Stenhouse, Jr. to spin out. Both drivers continued and finished outside the top-20.
Larson had a solid restart and ended his short comings with a .779 second victory over Keselowski.
The win marked a weekend sweep for Larson as he won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, the fourth driver to accomplish this feat.
Larson also became the second driver in Auto Club Speedway history to win from the pole, the first since Jimmie Johnson Aug. 31, 2008.
Larson, known for driving the outside lane, said his car felt better running the inside.
“I never would’ve thought I would’ve run on the bottom a lot,” Larson said. “The track is really fast on top but I was very good on the bottom. I felt I can save my tires better and be consistent. It’s hard to hit your marks on the top and carry a lot of speed. It’s easy to slip and miss your marks by a couple feet and hurt your lap times by a couple tenths.”
Larson said seeing Truex, Jr.’s running the bottom in stage two helped him win the final stage.
“Martin was running well on the bottom and began to pull away especially on the long runs,” Larson said. “Once I got to the lead, I committed to the bottom and was able to save my stuff pretty good.”
Truex, Jr., who finished fourth, said the pit strategy didn’t work and felt he had a better car than Larson.
“I felt like we were better at times but so was Kyle,” Truex, Jr. said. “It seemed like whoever got in front had a little advantage. Sometimes you make the right calls and sometimes you don’t and we didn’t Sunday. To come home fourth was definitely a good way to end it.”
Stewart-Haas Racing driver Clint Bowyer finished third, marking his first top-5 since Bristol Aug. 22, 2015.
Bowyer said it felt good running well in the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Ford.
“I’ve been beat up pretty bad over the last year and a half and felt good to be in front again,” Bowyer said. “It’s so much fun being in competitive cars and battling out for wins.”
Bowyer said he wanted to free up the car after battling loose and tight conditions Sunday.
“My car was so good but it was teetering and totting between too loose on the ends in and off the corner and too tight in the middle,” Bowyer said. “I wanted to get it better across the center but I was afraid that it gets too loose getting into turn three because I was having trouble there on the long run. I was kind of stuck in a box but that’s racing.”
Bowyer spent last season with HScott Motorsports, finishing a career-worst 27th in points and amounted three top-10 finishes.
The opportunity at Stewart-Haas Racing has allowed Bowyer to regain his competitive nature and has two top-10s since replacing Tony Stewart.
“This opportunity was something I’ve signed up for a year and a half ago,” Bowyer said. “I’ve been chomping it a bit to be in an organization like Stewart-Haas Racing. To have the army of people behind you, the teammates, partners, sponsors that we have and manufacturer in Ford. All of that is the total package. It’s why they won a championship and won all those races. That’s what you thrive to be a part of and finally got my opportunity.”
Bowyer gained four spots in the points standings and sits ninth, seven spots to the good of making the playoffs.
The Cup drivers head east to Martinsville Speedway at Martinsville, Virginia April 2. Kyle Busch is the defending spring winner.