Let’s recap what happened on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway: Kyle Busch took the win thanks to Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin wrecking on the final lap (which wound up sending an awake and alert Hamlin to the hospital), Tony Stewart fought Logano on pit road in post-race, and oh yeah, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seized the Sprint Cup points lead.
It’s not everyday that NASCAR’s most popular driver gets buried in the news. But indeed, through all of the end-of-race madness, Earnhardt finished second to move ahead of Brad Keselowski (who finished 23rd) by 12 points for the top spot in the Cup standings.
“I wasn’t racing up there so I couldn’t really get a good view of it, but I was running around the bottom of the corner, and I knew they were going to ‑‑ they were slowing up and battling real hard, so I was just trying to get what I could get,” Earnhardt said of the final lap.
“I felt like on the back straightaway, Kyle had the best shot at winning the race because [Logano and Hamlin] were slowing down running so hard. Just lucky we were able to get by on the inside there.”
Earnhardt had to do a lot of work to make sure he was in position to capitalize on the Logano-Hamlin incident and get his runner-up finish. On a pit stop under yellow with 84 laps remaining, an issue with the right-rear tire caused him to tumble from 3rd to 22nd. But he quickly made up positions when the green flag came back out.
A four-tire stop and chassis adjustment on his final round of service enabled him to return to the Top 5, and he was running fourth at the time of Logano and Hamlin’s run-in. With Logano going into the Turn 4 wall and Hamlin sliding hard into the inside retaining wall, Earnhardt passed the pair for his second consecutive top-three result at ACS.
He is the only Cup driver to start the season with five consecutive Top-10 finishes.