Back Seat Driver

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*Editor’s Note* Every Monday, after every race weekend, contributing writer Jacob Mullins will recap the top story lines from the track in our weekly feature, Back Seat Driver.

BACK WITH VENGEANCE

After missing the beginning of the season due to an indefinite suspension handed down by NASCAR, Kurt Busch has returned to the track with vengeance. Everyone knows the type of racer Busch is, a past-champion, and 34-time race winner over NASCAR’s top-three racing series in his career. And this past weekend at Auto Club Speedway, we saw him at his maximum performance.

Busch has been a man on a mission with a rocket ship in his grips all weekend. The No. 41 HAAS Automation Chevrolet had been fast ever since the Stewart-Hass Racing team unloaded the car Friday. Busch paced the first practice with a lap time of 38.556 and speed of 186.741 miles-per-hour, then earned the pole for Sunday’s race. On Saturday, Busch laid down the fastest lap in the series’ second practice as well as final practice later in the day.

While he dominated most of the day for the Auto Club 400, Busch had to settle for a third-place finish. So far in his two races this year, Busch has posted a pair of top-five finishes, fourth at Phoenix and third Sunday. Everyone in the garage knows Busch will make it to victory lane and lock himself into the Chase, it is just a matter of time. Maybe that win will come next weekend when the Sprint Cup Series goes short track racing at Martinsville, the site of Busch’s only win in 2014.

ONE

The old saying is “It doesn’t matter how many laps you lead, just as long as you’re leading on the last lap.” That couldn’t be more true for Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 Wurth Ford. A top-eight car at best, Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe made the call for four sticker tires on the first attempt at a green-white-checker finish. At the time, the four-tire stop looked to be a bad call as most of the leaders opted for two right sides only.

Restarting 15th, Keselowski made his way through the traffic. With the cars three and four-wide coming off Turn 2, the No. 42 Target Chevrolet of Kyle Larson had its rear bumper come flying off bringing out the caution. As the field was reset for the second attempt at the G-W-C, Keselowski was in sixth and in the preferred lane. As the green flag flew, Keselowski jumped up to fourth. By the time he worked off Turn 4 he was right behind Kevin Harvick and Busch.

With the white flag in the air and the drivers already in Turn 1, Greg Biffle spun past the star/finish line. NASCAR opted to not throw the flag right away and let the driver’s race. Coming out of the second turn Keselowski was able to work by Busch and take the lead. With the four fresher tires, Keselowski was able to hold off Busch and Harvick as he picked-up his first win of the season.

In hindsight, Wolfe’s call turned out to be the call of the day. Now with a win under his belt, Keselowski is all but a shew-in for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Also, Keselowski and his Team Penske teammate, Joey Logano, have a win to their name as they become the first team to have a win by all its drivers.

TO CAUTION OR NOT

At the end of the Auto Club 400, NASCAR had a tough decision to make in a matter of a few seconds. As the leaders were well ahead of the wreck that sent Biffle spinning at the start/finish line, NASCAR had the decision to throw the caution or not. I believe they made the right call.

NASCAR has been criticized in the past many times over for throwing cautions when not needed or to bunch the field up to give a good show. However you feel about them, you have to applaud NASCAR for keeping the yellow in the flag stand and letting the drivers race.

On the flip side, if the drivers were entering Turn 4 and Biffle was still in the middle of the race track, sure throw it then to keep the drivers safe. But I give NASCAR a huge hand on holding the caution and allowing Biffle to get his car corrected and drive away leading to a fantastic finish; whether you’re a fan of the driver that won or not.

CHAMPIONSHIP FORM

After a disappointing start to the season at Daytona, the 2014 NASCAR XFINITY Champion, Chase Elliott, has returned to championship form. After his 28th-place finish due to a crash, Elliott has rattled off four top-seven finishes including three top-five’s.

Despite not having a true shot at the win in the Drive4Clots.com 300 on Saturday, Elliott seemed pleased with his efforts. “I’m so proud of the effort and the way our team fought all day. We have to keep fighting, but feel like we are closer to getting to victory lane.”

In the four races since Daytona, Elliott has improved five spots, going from 8th to 3rd, and just 10 points behind current leader Ty Dillon. In similar fashion to 2014, he has moved up in the standings and is looking forward to heading to Texas Motor Speedway in three week, the site of his first XFINITY Series win.

RESTARTS

We saw on Sunday how a pair of G-W-C restarts helped Keselowski earn his first win of the year, but on Saturday, Brendan Gaughan used the last restart to put him in contention for the victory. However, Gaughan ultimately finished second to Harvick.

Gaughan has been the man on restarts this season. His is averaging 8.6 positions earned on a one-lap restart, the best among XFINITY regulars. Despite running around 10th all afternoon in the Drive4Clots.com 300, the restart on lap 122 really pushed him into contention. On the last restart, Gaughan went from eighth to second. Although he never got another caution flag to give Harvick a run for his money, Gaughan knew he had something for the No. 88 team.

“Anytime you’re in the top five in this series, you’re doing something right. I love the fact that I’m pissed off about being second,” Gaughan exclaimed. “I love my restarts. Our restarts got us there. I don’t care if I finished fifth; I just wanted a shot at it. Because I know I’m pretty darn good on restarts.”

His finish is also the fourth consecutive race this season that Gaughan has finished eight or better.

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About Jacob Mullins

Jacob Mullins serves as the managing editor and senior NASCAR writer covering all three national touring series's. You can find him on on Twitter at @JMulls15. An intercollegiate athletic administrator by trade, Mullins can be found at the big tracks as well as the local short tracks in the Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania area. Mullins enjoys social media, photography and graphic design. A native of West Chester, Pennsylvania, Mullins follows all forms of racing, Major League Baseball (Baltimore Orioles) and college football (Virginia Tech Hokies).

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