For once, Brad Keselowski, not Kevin Harvick, was NASCAR’s closer.
“At the end, we caught some breaks,” Keselowski said in the winner’s media conference Sunday in Fontana, California.
Closer, huh? Not like Mariano Rivera or a television show called The Closer. A NASCAR closer doesn’t shut down the opposition. He seizes the advantage.
|Fixing a Weak Point: Keselowski at Auto Club Speedway|
The moniker has often been used to describe Harvick. Perhaps Harvick is out of practice. The driver who has been noted for coming from nowhere to win races has recently seemed bent on utter dominance, having led 516 laps in the Sprint Cup Series’ first five races.
Keselowski led only the lap that mattered at Auto Club Speedway, and thanks to one of those unruly finishes NASCAR loves to tout, it was nine laps after the completion of the scheduled distance. The race went into double green-white-checkered, which sounds like something out of Talladega Nights, or Animal House, or anything by Mel Brooks.
Without insulting the intelligence of the knowledgeable, or giving the novices more than what they wanted to know, the race ran over, and Keselowski’s only shot was in changing four tires while the comfortably fast, Harvick and Kurt Busch, changed two.
It never would have worked had there not been two caution flags in the final five (scheduled) laps, which wound up being 14 (counting overtime) and creating a far-fetched scenario enabling someone other than Harvick or Busch to win.
It took all of this to stop Harvick, who said to the assembled media afterwards, “We won the  championship because of a pit call and didn’t win a race [Sunday]. I don’t think it was because of a pit call, just dumb luck and how many times we had to restart (near the end).”
Harvick had begun his remarks by saying, “I’m not disappointed at all.”
As the grueling end of Sunday’s thoroughly Auto Club 400–it was named both for the race’s sponsor and the speedway’s–approached, it appeared as if there existed two possibilities. Either Harvick would win for the third week in a row, or Busch, who hasn’t even raced three weeks in a row, would.
Harvick had, obviously, finished first in Las Vegas and Phoenix. Busch, he of the three-race suspension and lurid domestic abuse controversy, had been second in the latter. They both drive Chevrolets for Stewart-Haas Racing. Busch started on the pole. Harvick started second.
Keselowski came to the rescue of fans growing tired of the early domination of Harvick, who has, in eight straight races over two seasons, finished no worse than second. He joined Harvick, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson as the fourth winner of the young season.
Amid the onslaught that continued right up until the final lap, when Keselowski passed Busch after being seventh with five (official) laps remaining, Keselowski and Paul Wolfe, his notably resourceful crew chief, knew they had to pull something out other than a superior race car.
In Friday’s media remarks, Keselowski had echoed what he’d said the previous week. He and Penske Racing teammate Logano, who had won the Daytona 500, had lost a bit of ground when compared to the rival Chevys of Harvick and Busch.
“We’re not far off,” Keselowski said. “We just need a little bit more. Obviously, you want to be the best and we were off a little bit from that (in qualifying), but we were still pretty good.”
Keselowski and Wolfe didn’t exactly cure the plague of Harvick domination that had descended across the land. After all, Harvick only finished first or second for the eighth race in a row, spanning the end of the 2014 season. His average 2015 finish, 1.6, rose from 1.5. Busch, by virtue of settling for third when Harvick passed him at the finish line, is at 2.5 over two.
Wolfe said Keselowski was driving “a sixth- or seventh-place car,” adding, “I told Brad over the radio, ‘If we’re going to win this thing, I think we’re going to need four (tires). I didn’t feel we were going to be able to pass those guys on equal tires.
“At that point, it’s like, let’s go for the win.”
Keselowski, who, by the way, won six races in 2014, didn’t vanquish the conquerors. He merely kept them at bay for a week. The resistance had to start somewhere.
“When the yellow comes out in these races, as a driver, you can’t sit and fret about what the yellow’s for,” he said. “You’ve got to make a real-time decision that’s going to really dictate your fate to win or lose a race.”
All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.