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.