FONTANA, Calif. — As 39 cars took the green flag for the Auto Club 400 on Sunday, things were immediately off to a shaky start.
Denny Hamlin, who started on the front row, didn’t get through the gears quickly enough and caused an accordion effect on the front of the field. Brad Keselowski got into Hamlin’s No. 11, with last week’s winner Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick also getting a piece.
Keselowski’s problems continued on Lap 4 as he made contact with Jimmie Johnson coming out of Turn 4. As a result, he suffered a flat left rear tire after sliding through the frontstretch grass to bring out the first caution.
“I got hit there at the start, and then I got hit again,” Keselowski said. “The car was all torn up, and the guys worked to fix it. We were only able to partially fix it with the yellows at the start, and when they finally got it as much repaired as we could, we were a lot more competitive and just slowly picked our way through the field.”
The driver of the No. 2 driver rebounded for a second-place finish as late-race cautions, and diverse strategies played into his favor.
“Up and down day for sure — a lot of adversity,” he said. “But we were able to overcome that, and I think that’s what great teams do.”
Hamlin’s day finished as poorly as it began. On the final pit stop, the team chose track position over tires. That decision would yield a disappointing 14th place finish.
“Just a fifth or sixth-place car at best on the long runs. On the short runs, we struggled a little bit,” Hamlin said. As for the race’s start, he added, “[Keselowski] just got to the inside of me, he didn’t really get into the back of me. So really, I’ve got nothing there.”
Keselowski, with one victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway, sits third in the playoff standings. Hamlin led his first laps of 2017 and is 12th in the standings.
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