For the vast majority of Sunday’s Auto Club 400, Kyle Busch administered a spanking on his competitors. However, in the last few laps, business picked up, first with local-boy Jimmie Johnson taking the lead. But on the final lap in Turn 3, it was Kevin Harvick applying the chrome horn to Johnson to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and win the Auto Club 400.
Juan Pablo Montoya led the field to the green flag to start the race after winning the pole with a lap of 184.653 mph and led the first seven laps until Denny Hamlin took the lead. Hamlin stayed at the point until Kyle Busch took the lead before the first round of green-flag pit stops. After all the shuffling in the pits was done, Busch retained the lead with Hamlin second, Brian Vickers in third, Montoya in fourth, and Clint Bowyer rounding out the top-5. Another round of green-flag stops took place and after those stops, it was still Busch in the lead with Martin Truex Jr. in second, Vickers in third, Hamlin in fourth, and Tony Stewart in fifth.
On Lap 76, the first caution of the day came out for debris. Almost all of the leaders came in for a pit stop, except for Tony Stewart, who took a gamble by staying out. He would take the race lead with teammate Ryan Newman in second, Mark Martin in third, Kyle Busch back in fourth, and Martin Truex Jr. rounding out the top-5. On the restart, the Joe Gibbs Racing mechanical woes continued as Denny Hamlin’s engine started going south. On Lap 103, the second caution of the afternoon came out for debris from David Gilliland’s car after he cut a left front tire. Again, the teams went into the pits and, yes, again Kyle Busch got out first with Stewart second, Newman third, Vickers in fourth, and Truex Jr. rounding out the top-5.
Green flag stops would come again around 70 laps to go and after everything had cycled out, Busch and Stewart were still first and second, but now Kevin Harvick was third with Vickers fourth and Jimmie Johnson rounding out the top-5. Busch kept his stranglehold on the lead after the last round of scheduled green flag stops with Stewart still second, Harvick in third, Johnson in fourth, and Matt Kenseth rounding out the top-5.
Shortly after the stops concluded, rookie Andy Lally looped his car around in turn 4 to bring out the third caution of the day. The race would then go back to green flag racing as Kyle Busch appeared to be ready to check out on the field when Bobby Labonte hit the wall hard with 15 laps to go, bringing out the final caution. Eight cars stayed out on the track while the rest of the field pitted to set the stage for the closing laps.
During the final ten laps, Johnson started reeling in Kyle Busch and eventually over-took Kyle with three laps to go. But while the battle between Jimmie and Kyle was brewing, Harvick stormed into the picture and on the final lap, applied his front bumper on the rear end of Johnson’s car enough to break his concentration and work around him to lead the last, and most important, lap of the race.
After the race, Harvick was very pleased with his run to the finish.
“The restarts weren’t exactly what we needed to have [during the race], but our car was really fast all day on the long runs,” Harvick said in the post-race press conference. “As everybody started to stay out those last two times, at least the guys we were racing, our car was able to get some air pressure built up in the tires and we were able to really fire off there right off the bat up top. We were able to keep pace with them for a few laps. When they started racing side-by-side, we made up the ground. Kyle started to get loose. Drove around him. Everything worked out going into turn[s] 3 and 4.”
Johnson had to settle for second while Kyle Busch was third with Kenseth and Ryan Newman rounding out the top-5. Carl Edwards was sixth, with Clint Bowyer seventh, Vickers eighth, Kasey Kahne ninth, and Montoya rounding out the top-10.
Edwards is the new points leader after today’s race with a nine-point tilt over Newman. Former points leader Kurt Busch, who struggled to a 17th-place finish, fell to third with Kyle Busch in fourth and Jimmie Johnson rounding out the top-5. Stewart is now sixth in points with Paul Menard dropping back to seventh. Montoya is now in eighth place in points with Harvick ninth and Kenseth and Kahne tied for the tenth spot.
Kyle Busch led a jaw-dropping five times for 151 of the 200 laps, while team-mate Denny Hamlin, before his engine woes led one time for fifteen laps. Tony Stewart led four times for 11 laps, Ryan Newman led one time for eight laps with Juan Pablo Montoya leading twice for seven laps. Jimmie Johnson led twice for three laps with Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., J.J. Yeley and Harvick all leading at various points of the race.
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