Martin Truex Jr. breaks Kevin Harvick’s win streak in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series and takes the checkered flag for the Auto Club 400.
Truex started on the pole, swept both stages and had lapped up to 10th place by the conclusion of the event. This is the third time Truex has swept all stages in a race and is the only driver to do so under NASCAR’s current stage format (Vegas and Chicago in 2017, and now California).
“Winning just feels good!” With a big grin on his face, Truex addressed the media during his press conference. “To get our first California win is unbelievable. I feel like we’ve been getting better here the last couple years, just haven’t been able to put it all together. For us to get our first win of the season today, it’s definitely special. To get it here, finish off the West Coast swing with a win, feels great.”
Team owner Barney Visser, who suffered a heart attack on November 6, said he was feeling great and it was nice to be back at the track. Cole Pearn, crew chief for the No. 78 Toyota Camry, shared his thoughts after seeing the incident with Kevin Harvick, explaining how his focus was still locked in on his team’s performance.
“In this sport, you can only do what you can do to yourself,” Pearn declared confidently. “You’re focused on your own program. You know those guys are really good. Obviously, they’ve been really successful so far this year. Whether they were in the race or not, I don’t think we would have played anything any different. You just got to do the best you can for yourself. That’s the only chance you have.”
Kevin Harvick was attempting four wins in a row, a feat that had not been accomplished since 2007 with Jimmie Johnson. While he still had one of the most dominant cars of the weekend, an early race incident with Kyle Larson caused his No. 4 Ford Fusion to crash into the outside wall.
On pit road after the race, you could sense some frustration from Kevin Harvick, who finished 35th overall, but he admitted it was his fault.
“I went down to side draft and he was coming up, and we touched and it just knocked (the car) to the right and just spun out,” Harvick explained after finishing nine laps down. “I don’t know that’s (Kyle Larson’s) fault, I think that’s my fault for coming down the race track right there and trying to side draft. Then as we touched right there, it just came back up the race track, just trying to get a little too much right there knowing the stage end was coming. Just my fault back there.”
Defending race winner and recent inductee for the track’s Walk of Fame, Kyle Larson finished second after a late race charge through the field. Larson enjoyed racing Harvick in the first stage, but a slip by Harvick caused the two to collide and virtually end Harvick’s day early.
“I respect Kevin a lot, and I think he respects me a lot too,” Larson said as he shared his thoughts on the incident. “I was pretty amped up on the radio there right after just because I felt like at the time maybe he let his frustration build and kind of just ran into me down the backstretch and wrecked himself. I thought he would be mad at me or something like that, which I knew I didn’t do anything wrong at the time.
“A couple minutes later, they let me know he was taking the blame for it on the radio, which was nice. I was able to chill out some.”
Kyle Busch gets his third consecutive top-three finish with a third-place result, with Brad Keselowski finishing fourth.
“I’m not really sure why I’m here. I finished fourth,” Keselowski said smiling. “We kind of got the most we had out of it today. We had some decent short run speed that could run and keep those guys honest. But after about five laps, we were just kind of holding on, running it out, trying to hope for a late race yellow or something to have something for them.
“All in all, a decent weekend. We unloaded really not very good at all, looked like it was going to be a really long weekend. Made some good improvements through practice and qualifying and all those things, got to where we were good enough to run there back half of the top-five. Just have a solid day, and that’s what today was.”
Joey Logano, who won yesterday’s NASCAR Xfinity race, rounded out the top-five with a fifth-place finish.
“I was in front of (Truex) for about five laps and I was like, ‘Hey,’ but it was short-lived,” Logano shared with his brief experience leading the field before being overtaken by Truex. “Overall, it was a good weekend. We got a top-five here and a win yesterday is great.”
Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon were the only other cars on the lead lap and rounded out the top-10.
As for the race, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch primarily led laps in the first stage, with Jamie McMurray leading one lap during the green flag pit cycle. Joey Logano was the first to dive onto pit road, which ended up being a smart move. When he entered pit road, he was roughly seven seconds behind the leader. After the field cycled through their pit stops, the No. 22 Ford was less than two seconds behind the leader.
After pit stops, the major turn of events that caught many off guard took place during the second half of Stage 1. Kevin Harvick, who started in the 10th position, had battled his way into the top-five. While battling Kyle Larson for the third position, Larson drove the exit of Turn 2 aggressively and started to side draft the No. 4 car. This caused Harvick to get slightly loose, and on the backstretch, Harvick turned into Larson and bounced off his car into the outside wall. Harvick slid all the way across the track, and narrowly missed the inside wall. The heavy contact seemed to knock the toe slightly with the right front tire, but the team was able to repair the damage and Harvick did continue in the race.
Quite a few analysts stated at the time that it seemed Harvick was showing some displeasure at how Larson was racing him so early. Jeff Gordon, a broadcast analyst for FOX Sports, shared during the television, “Harvick seems to not let many people into his head, but it looks like that changed today.”
In the closing laps of the first stage, Ryan Blaney who had driven up to the eighth position got loose coming out of Turn 4 and made mild contact with the outside wall. His team addressed this during their pit stop when the stage concluded, as Truex was over Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. When the field pitted, Logano won the battle off pit road and took the green flag on the restart.
Logano, Truex and Kyle Busch led laps in the second stage. Larson was the first to pit during a green flag pit cycle. He was outside the top-five, but gained well over four seconds and was up to second after the field finished their pit stops.
With 11 laps to go in the second stage, Trevor Bayne and Ryan Newman were racing at the exit of Turn 4. Bayne attempted to pass on the outside, but Newman wasn’t able to get him enough room in time and pinched Bayne into the outside wall. A couple of laps later, that exact incident caused Bayne’s fender to cut down into the tire and blow a right front tire. His No. 6 Ford Fusion smacked the outside wall while racing through Turns 3 and 4, suffering substantial damage when he visited pit road and he was not able to continue in the race.
“That’s the hardest hit I’ve ever had in my life,” Bayne shared after he was evaluated and released from the infield medical care center.
Paul Menard also visited pit road during the same time and seemed to begin having some engine issues, but continued in the race event.
Stage 2 concluded with Truex winning back to back stages with Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones in the top-five. Kyle Busch won the battle off pit road, but Larson felt a mishap with one of the wheels on the car, and came in a second time for additional service and restarted at the end of the lead lap.
In the final stage, a few laps after the initial restart, David Ragan slid up in the exit of Turn 4 and scraped the outside wall. A lap and a half later, the No. 38 car blew a right front tire and hit the outside wall in Turn 1, almost collecting the No. 00 car of Jeffrey Earnhardt. At this point, the leaders came to pit road and fans saw a few various strategies. William Byron’s team took only right side tires and left pit road ahead of those who took four tires. Kasey Kahne, who was announced as the new Lefty’s Kid’s Club president earlier this weekend, inherited the race lead by electing to stay out. However, none of the front two drivers was a match for Kyle Busch as he got right around the two and took the lead throughout the opening laps of the restart.
Just passed 50 laps to go, Matt DiBenedetto scrapped the wall through Turns 1 and 2 with minimal damage. He brought the car down to pit road from the 31st position and was able to return to race competition. He started in a career-best 18th spot at this track and had a fortunate and unique turn of events at ISM Raceway with a new one-race sponsor, Zynga Poker.
Green flag pit stops started with 41 laps to go. Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and William Byron, who took two tires on his previous stop, were some of the first drivers to come down pit road. Kyle Busch, who led most of the final stage, was recently passed by Martin Truex Jr. when the two came to pit road for service, bumper to bumper. Kyle’s team was able to service his car quicker, and he inherited the lead at the exit of pit road. However with 32 laps to go, the No. 18 car got loose in lap traffic on the exit of Turn 2, so Truex took advantage of the situation and drove by for the race lead and never looked back, winning by a margin of 11.685 seconds, the largest of the year.
The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series conclude their West Coast Swing and now heads back east to Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, March 25. To watch the race in person, visit the website for tickets to the STP 500.