Brad Keselowski takes ‘torn to pieces’ car and finishes second in Auto Club 400

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Brad Keselowski was the only driver in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 who played in the grass and dirt and it wasn’t willingly.

In any other instance, this story likely has a disappointing ending.

However, when Keselowski climbed out of his N0. 2 Ford at race’s end to survey his mangled left-rear fender, he was doing so after finishing ahead of 37 other drivers in a 39-car field. The only driver ahead of him was Kyle Larson

Keselowski earned his fourth top five of the season after he went sliding through the front stretch grass on Lap 4 of the 202-lap race. The slide was a result of contact with Jimmie Johnson after Keselowski fell from third to 17th place in the first three laps. His drop came after the inside lane bottlenecked at the start, causing Ryan Newman to run into Keselowski’s rear bumper.

“I wanted to win but I got out of the car and looked at the damage and this thing is torn to pieces,” Keselowski told Fox Sports. “I feel lucky to get second. Curious to see what we could’ve done if we weren’t torn up.”

The perseverance of Team Penske’s No. 2 team occurred without its leader, crew chief Paul Wolfe. Wolfe was serving the first of a three-race suspension after the No. 2 failed post-race inspection at Phoenix last week.

Keselowski and his damaged ride earned his second top five in three years at the 2-mile track. He never finished better than 18th in his first six starts at the track built by team owner Roger Penske.

“Glad I got the race on record on the DVR so I can see it,” Keselowski said later in a press conference. “We really turned a corner here.  The first few races I ran here, we were awful.  I think I learned a lot, the team learned a lot. Have put together just a much more robust effort for this type of track. I like coming to places we run well.  But beyond that, I think this track is known for having great races and great racing.  I thought we saw that here at the end today.  It’s fun to be a part of those races.”

Keselowski had an average running spot of 15.5. The No. 2 was one of the first cars a lap down at the end of the first stage, but was 10th at the end of the second stage on Lap 120. At the end of the afternoon, he had spent 117 laps in the top 15.

On the overtime restart, Keselowski found himself in third, exactly where he began the race.

“I don’t know if I would have had a shot at Kyle, but I’d like to have seen,” Keselowksi said of Larson. “We came from third on that last one, a couple of three‑wide passes and whatnot, because Kyle was smart. He picked the outside lane, kind of pinned me behind a guy that had older tires.

“By the time I cleared everybody, Kyle was just too far gone.”

Meanwhile, the other drivers damaged on the race’s initial start also bounced back, albeit with cars that were covered in duct tape. Newman finished 15th while Kevin Harvick finished 13th. Both were on the lead lap.

Keselowski ends his “West Coast Swing” second in the points behind Larson. He’s been in the top three for four of the first five races.

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Here’s the point(s): Brad Keselowski locked into second round already

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Brad Keselowski came into the NASCAR Cup playoffs concerned primarily about one thing: wins.

His strategy was if he won at least once in the first two or three rounds, it likely would leave him in good position to reach the final Round of 4 for the championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Ironically, Keselowski is just two races into the 10-race playoffs and he’s already advanced to the second round Round of 12 not on wins, but points.

After finishing sixth in the playoff opener last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Keselowski finished fourth in Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

That’s enough points earned to put Keselowski and Kyle Larson into the second round with points, while Chicagoland winner Martin Truex Jr. and New Hampshire winner Kyle Busch also advance to Round 2 with their victories.

While Keselowski would have liked to earn his first playoff win and third triumph of the season, knowing he doesn’t have to worry about where he’ll finish next Sunday in the first round elimination race at Dover gave the 2012 Cup champion satisfaction indeed.

“It was great execution,” Keselowski said. “The pit crew was really solid today and a pretty good setup too. (Crew chief) Paul Wolfe and the engineers did a good job putting the right stuff under the car.”

Even though he never led a lap in Sunday’s race, a win was definitely possible for Keselowski, even though he was contending with the Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Truex Jr.

He stayed in the top 5 for much of the race, didn’t suffer any problems on pit road and stayed out of trouble.

“I felt like we were where we needed to be to win and to run up front with the pit crew and the setup, just kind of lacking a little bit with aero stuff to keep up,” Keselowski said. “But on this type of track, aerodynamics are a little less important and I felt like it helped us run a little bit higher this week.”

Now, Keselowski can go into Dover a bit more relaxed, knowing he’ll race yet another day after next Sunday – as in the Round of 12 opener at Charlotte on Oct. 8.

“I think today this execution is as good as you can get,” Keselowski said. “A little bit of luck helps and of course you want to be the fastest car.

“That’s not the scenario with rules the way they are now, so we’ve got to make the most of it and hope to catch a few breaks and make sure we do our part.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. overcomes tough day to hold on to final transfer spot

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
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LOUDON, New Hampshire — No, there were not any bruises although Ricky Stenhouse Jr. admits it felt like “we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week.’’

Stenhouse persevered Sunday, coming back from scraping the wall on Lap 7 of Sunday’s  race and getting lapped before halfway to finish 15th. That puts him in the final transfer spot for the second round with only next weekend’s race at Dover International Speedway left before the playoff field is trimmed.

Stenhouse is tied with Austin Dillon for the final transfer spot but owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. Stenhouse’s best finish in this round was the 15th-place finish he scored Sunday. Dillon’s best finish is 16th, which he scored last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Stenhouse entered Sunday’s race four points behind Dillon for the final transfer spot. Odds were not in his favor to gain ground. Stenhouse had the worst average finish (20.44) at New Hampshire among the 16 playoff drivers coming into the race. It looked all weekend as if he’d struggle to make it into the top 20.

“We just couldn’t find speed, couldn’t find the handle on the car,’’ Stenhouse said. “We made a lot of adjustments for today and was surprisingly a little bit better than we were in practice. I didn’t think we were as capable of a car to finish where we did, but we did what we needed and had some good breaks and some good pit stops and ended up gaining some points. That was our goal, so I feel really good about that. I’d say we’ve had two sub-par weeks and we’re still in this thing, so we’ll regroup and get focused and go to Dover.”

Stenhouse has 2,044 points, tied with Dillon and one point ahead of Ryan Newman.

Dillon finished 19th and was involved in an incident with Kevin Harvick that spun Harvick and triggered an eight-car crash at the end of the second stage.

Dillon said he didn’t know what happened.

“He kept coming left and I was in the gas and he bobbled and when he bobbled I tapped him and it spun him out,’’ Dillon said of Harvick.

As for next week, Dillon said: “We’ve got to go get ‘em … and have a good race and we will see where we end up.”

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Kyle Larson: ‘Top fives will get us to Homestead’

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Kyle Larson has finished in second a lot.

His runner-up finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was his eighth of the year and his first in the playoffs.

In Sunday’s ISM Connect 300, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver started and finished second after failing to track down Kyle Busch in the closing laps of the race.

But Larson doesn’t mind, especially after he’s earned two top fives to open the playoffs.

“That’s a lot of second-place finishes this year, but I’m fine with second,” Larson told NBCSN. “Top fives will get us to Homestead (for the championship race), so hats off to everybody on our Target team. The pit crew was great all day. I think we gained spots every time. Normally I’m struggling on short tracks, but this year we were pretty good.”

Larson placed second in both New Hampshire races this year. Before this season, he hadn’t finished better than 10th in his previous four starts. He placed third and second in his first two New Hampshire starts in 2014.

Larson earned his first short-track win two weeks ago in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway. The rest of his five Cup victories have come at 2-mile speedways, of which there are none in the playoffs. But there is the short track of Martinsville and the 1-mile oval at Phoenix in the third round.

Any sting of finishing second once again is likely dulled by the fact Larson has already advanced to the second round based on points.

But Larson wants to make more trips to victory lane in the final eight races.

“You could probably point your way to (the championship race), but I would prefer to get a win in each of these rounds,” Larson later said in his post-race press conference. “If we can keep the good runs going, we should be all right.

“Obviously, I think as you get into the later rounds, wins are even more important than they are now. We had good regular season points, gave ourselves some good playoff points. This first round I knew would be fairly easy, but I think as we get into the next round and then the third round, a win would be great.”

Larson leaves New Hampshire second in the NASCAR Cup standings. He is 24 points behind Martin Truex Jr.

Larson’s next chance to win in the first round of the playoffs is next weekend at the 1-mile Dover International Speedway. In his seven starts at the “Monster Mile,” Larson has three top fives.

Two of those were runner-up finishes, including in the last visit there in June.

NASCAR Cup standings after Loudon: 4 drivers locked into second round

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Four drivers emerged from Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a bit of pressure taken off their shoulders.

In addition to race winner Kyle Busch and last week’s winner, Martin Truex Jr., Sunday runner-up Kyle Larson and fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski are all locked into the second round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs, also known as the Round of 12.

That means no matter what happens at Dover International Speedway next Sunday, those four will have automatic berths in the second round.

Drivers in the first round that need strong results at Dover to advance — or run the risk of being eliminated if they don’t — are Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (12th place), Austin Dillon (13th), Ryan Newman (14th), Kurt Busch (15th) and Kasey Kahne (16th).

Following Sunday’s race, Martin Truex Jr. remains No. 1 in the standings, holding a 24-point lead over Larson, a 30-point edge over Kyle Busch, 43 points ahead of Brad Keselowski, 61 points ahead of Denny Hamlin and 62 points ahead of Matt Kenseth.

Click here for the full NASCAR Cup standings after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.