When the fire, smoke and other mayhem had cleared Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, there stood Dale Earnhardt Jr. atop the Sprint Cup point standings.
DRIVER POINTS: After Auto Club 400
That fact almost was lost on a race afternoon that produced some of the best racing in the history of the two-mile track and generated a final lap that will be remembered for months – maybe years – to come.
After a week’s break for Easter (and maybe for tempers to cool), Earnhardt Jr. will carry the point lead into Martinsville, VA for the sixth race of the season. Brad Keselowski, who led entering the Fontana race but had his first major problems of the season, fell to second and trails Junior by 12 points.
Earnhardt Jr. survived the chaos of the closing laps to roar back from 21st place after a bad pit stop to finish second.
Kyle Busch Wins In Wild Fontana Sprint Cup Series Finish
That result would have been a difficult prediction with 80 laps to go. Earnhardt Jr. had been third but fell to 21st after a 21-second pit stop, one lengthened by problems on the right-rear tire.
“We had a little problem on pit road on one of our stops and lost a lot of positions,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But we've always – we just stick together, and everybody was just kind of – patted each other on the back, and we were going to get another chance to redeem ourselves on pit road.
“We had a good car. On that next restart, we drove back up to 10th before the next caution, so I felt like we were back up in position to run well and everything was fine. We got a good pit stop on the next caution and put that mistake behind us.
“You know, then the race sort of got weird. I'm not sure exactly – when we would take two tires, our car drove really bad. It just didn't like that old left rear on there, and it would – we'd just get really, really loose. So that was giving me some problems. And we were fading there at the end of the race, but we got an opportunity to fix it when we got that late caution.”
Junior said the team has picked up its game in the final segments of races.
“We were pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now we're doing it as good as anybody,” he said. “Just riding the wave. Just real happy with how things are going for our team.”
Earnhardt Jr. managed to avoid the last-lap tangle between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin and followed winner Kyle Busch across the finish line for his second second-place finish of the year. Junior has finished in the top seven in all five races.
PHOTOS: Auto Club 400 Race Action and Auto Club 400 Winner Kyle Busch
“I really wasn't worried about those guys too much and how they were wrecking and all,” Junior said. “I was just glad to get through and get a good run.
“We had a good car all day and sort of just got off sequence and all screwed up on tire strategy there at the end with all the cautions and guys coming for four and two, and we were able to take advantage of that on that last caution, get four tires, and starting on the inside was terrible.
“I would lose five, six spots down there trying to get going on the inside, and finally that last restart we started 18th but we were on the outside, and we were ninth by the time we come back around for the first lap under green. Just really important to get that outside restart, and we weren't getting it there near the end, so we were just going backward.
RACE RESULTS: Auto Club 400
“[I’m] just happy we were able to finish. I thought the car was good enough to finish in the top five, so I'm glad we got a good finish up there.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.