It was a hard fought battle at Auto Club Speedway in today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ Auto Club 400. All four JGR teams would battle through adversity with Denny Hamlin leading the team with a third-place finish. Carl Edwards took the checkered flag in seventh, while two late pit road penalties left Kenseth back in 19th and a flat tire with just two laps remaining dropped Kyle Busch from an almost certain second-place finish to 25th.
Denny Hamlin started the No. 11 Sport Clips Toyota from the third position and proved without a doubt to have one of the fastest cars on the track today as the team would battle back from not one, but two penalties that put them at the back of the field. The first penalty was for pitting prior to pit road being open on lap 26 and the second was a pit road speeding penalty on lap 83. Both times Hamlin would have to drop to the back of the field. But the Sport Clips team was resilient on this day and Hamlin would race his way back into contention. A late caution would bring the field back down pit road for a final pit stop prior to a green-white-checker finish. The Sport Clips crew would make the four-tire change and put Hamlin back out first for the final restart. Hamlin would choose the outside line, but unfortunately the bottom line would come together better on the restart with the 48 pushing the 4 car out to the front. The 48 would eventually make a final pass on the 4 for the win, and Hamlin was left back in the third position at the finish line. It was an amazing finish despite the earlier setbacks in the race.
Carl Edwards qualified the No. 19 Subway Toyota in the fifth position and was fast throughout the afternoon as he raced inside the top five for the majority of the afternoon. Edwards would get penalized by NASCAR for speeding on pit road on lap 124 forcing him to the back of the field. But Edwards and the Subway team was far from done on this afternoon as he drove his way back toward the front of the field and in contention to win the race. Edwards was back up into second late before a late caution brought all the teams down pit road one final time to set up a green-white-checker finish. Edwards would restart fifth but was caught in the wrong line on the restart and had to settle for a seventh-place finish.
Matt Kenseth started the No. 20 DEWALT Toyota in the 20th position but was fast from the outset entering the top ten just 10 laps into the 200-lap battle. Kenseth would race his way into the top five by the 50-lap mark and he would spend the majority of the afternoon racing for the lead. Tire wear was a major issue for many teams on this afternoon and Kenseth would feel a potential flat tire with just over 50 laps remaining. He would come down pit road on lap 149 for a four-tire change, but was ruled too fast entering the pits forcing him to the back of the field. He would work his way back toward the top 15 but NASCAR ruled the team had a uncontrolled tire on the final pit stop prior to a green-white-checker finish. Kenseth would once again be sent to the back of the lead lap cars and once again he would battle back to earn a 19th-place finish.
Kyle Busch started the No. 18 M&M’S 75th Anniversary Toyota from the sixth position and quickly gained a spot to race the top five early on in this 200-lap battle. Shortly thereafter Busch would report loose handling conditions and a possible tire issue. Instead of taking a chance early in the race the team would make the decision to bring Busch down pit road for fresh tires on lap 19. The unscheduled stop pushed the No. 18 Camry back to 38th, but he was able to quickly race his way back onto the lead lap on the fresh tires before a caution on lap 26. From there he was able to slowly make his way back toward the front of the field and was back inside the top ten for a restart on lap 54. He would battle inside the top five for much of the remainder of the afternoon and was running second with just two laps to go when his right front tire blew. Busch would have to bring the M&M’S Camry down pit road for fresh tires and restart from the back of the lead lap cars. He would race his way back to 25th at the finish.
Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports captured the win, with Kevin Harvick second, Hamlin third, Joey Logano fourth and Ricky Stenhouse rounded out the top five. There were six cautions for a total of 33 laps and 26 lead changes among eight different drivers.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes a week off before returning on April 2 on the short track of Martinsville Speedway. Live coverage on Fox Sports 1 will start Sunday, April 2 at Noon (race starts at 1 PM ET). The race will also be carried on Sirius NASCAR radio channel 90.