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Let’s be blunt here: For the competitors, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series can be cruel and heartbreaking, even for the sport’s elite drivers and teams.
Every race ends exactly the same way: One driver wins and everybody else doesn’t.
With the odds of winning just 1 in 39 or 40 — depending on how many cars are entered — the potential for calamity and crushing disappointment far outweighs the potential of joy and celebration.
A good case in point was Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. There, Kyle Larson capped off a dream weekend by winning the race from the pole, one day after winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series race.
But for some of the titans of the sport, the Auto Club was gut-wrenching and frustrating. Consider the fates of the six past NASCAR champions entered in the race.
Matt Kenseth, 2003 NASCAR champion
Nobody had a worse day than Kenseth, who got tapped by Martin Truex Jr. exiting Turn 2 and went hard into the backstretch wall on Lap 185. Kenseth finished 36th in the 39-car field, but at least he walked away from the crash.
“I just got hit in the left rear quarter panel off of Turn 2 and got spun out and I was just kind of along for the ride,” said Kenseth, who now has three DNFs in the first five races.
Kurt Busch, 2004
All race long, Busch fought unexpected handling demons in his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and finished 24th. And that was the Daytona 500 winner’s best finish in the three-race Western Swing.
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Jimmie Johnson, 2006-10, ’13, ’16
The seven-time champion and six-time Auto Club winner had a bad weekend from start to finish, crashing his primary car on Friday and then getting involved in a couple of incidents in the race, including a spin on pit road. He finished 21st and has just one top 10 all year.
“Man, we definitely didn’t have the fastest car out there today,” said Johnson. “I think we used up all the good luck in the season finale last season. We battled all day long to get back on the lead lap, but we have got some work to do.”
Brad Keselowski, 2012
After getting damage when the field wadded up at the start of the race and then even more when he got hit by Jimmie Johnson on Lap 4, Keselowski’s Team Penske Ford looked like a refugee from a demolition derby. Remarkably, he rallied to finish second behind Kyle Larson.
“I got ran into the back of and it did a lot of damage to the car and we were in a lot of trouble and started to free fall through the field and then I got ran over again,” said Keselowski. “I got ran over, so I’m not really sure who, why, what.”
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Kevin Harvick, 2014
Another past champion who suffered heavy damage in the pile up when the green flag flew to start the race, Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing crew had to battle hard to come back and finish 13th. But it could have been much worse.
“I feel like we won,” said Harvick. “Those are the days that championships are made out of right there. To wreck before we even get to the start-finish line, I don’t know exactly what happened in front of me, but, obviously, we got a caved-in grille. They did a great job fixing it. … That’s why these guys are who they are and won championships and races because they can make days like that happen.”
Kyle Busch, 2015
Busch didn’t have a horrible day, finishing eighth, but it’s clear the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have lost a step relative to the competition. In his last five starts at Auto Club prior to this race, Busch had two victories, four top-two finishes and 361 laps led. His car simply wasn’t that good on Sunday.
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