For the vast majority of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (March 27), Kyle Busch administered a spanking on his competitors. However, in the last few laps, it looked like local boy Jimmie Johnson would put a whipping to them all.
Turns out everyone was just focusing on the wrong local boy.
Bakersfield’s Kevin Harvick came out of nowhere in the race’s final stages, leading just one lap – the last one – to take the checkers in Sunday’s Auto Club 400. After the white flag, entering turn 3, it was Harvick applying the chrome horn to Johnson after both had passed Busch a few laps earlier, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat while earning the driver his first ever Cup victory in his home state.
“I knew if I was going to hit the wall today,” said Harvick, who powered through on the outside while Johnson’s car loosened up entering the turn, “It wasn’t going to be ’till turn 4 coming to the checkered.”
But the No. 29 team held on, delivering the first victory for Richard Childress Racing since last fall at Talladega (Clint Bowyer). The key came in the form of a final restart, on lap 191 where Kyle Busch and Johnson got to racing side-by-side, allowing Harvick to work up through the field and eventually catch both men while battling for the lead up front.
“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. It was a disappointing end for Busch, who led a race-high 151 of 200 laps but didnt have the handling he needed when under pressure in the closing laps.
“You ask a little bit more from your racecar at the last moments, it doesn’t have anything left to give,” he said, notably gracious in defeat. “You’re essentially a sitting duck waiting for those guys to drive by you. Couldn’t get any more out of the car. That was it. It would push, get loose, that was all we had.”
Montoya led the field to the green flag to start the race after winning the pole with a lap of 184.653 mph and paced the first seven laps until Denny Hamlin took the lead. Hamlin stayed at the point until Kyle Busch took over 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, Vickers in third, Montoya in fourth and Bowyer rounding out the top five.
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 Stewart, who took a gamble by staying out. He would take the race lead with teammate Newman in second, Mark Martin in third, Kyle Busch back in fourth and Truex rounding out the top five.
On the restart, the Joe Gibbs Racing mechanical woes continued as Hamlin’s engine started going south; he failed to finish the race in 39th. 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 rounding out the top five.
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 Harvick was third with Vickers fourth and Johnson rounding out the top five. 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 Kenseth.
Shortly after the stops concluded, rookie Andy Lally looped his car around in turn 4 to bring out the third caution of the day on lap 172. 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 10 laps, Johnson started reeling in Kyle Busch and eventually overtook 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.
Kyle Busch led a jaw-dropping five times for 151 of the 200 laps, while teammate Hamlin, before his engine woes led one time for 15 laps. Stewart led four times for 11 laps, Newman led one time for eight laps with Montoya leading twice for seven laps. Johnson led twice for three laps with Bowyer, Truex , JJ Yeley and Harvick all leading at various points of the race.
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