FONTANA, Calif. -- While his teammate was out on the frontstretch mixing it up with a host of unhappy competitors, Brad Keselowski stood in the garage area of Auto Club Speedway surveying his race car. Early in Sunday's event, his vehicle looked like one of the top contenders for the victory. By late afternoon, it was barely hanging on.
Keselowski weathered a Friday engine change that forced him to start at the rear of the field, but he couldn't overcome an oil slick and an overheating backup motor that combined to end his impressive season-opening streak of top-five finishes. The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion came to Southern California in the points lead, and as the only driver to have finished in the top five in all four previous races this year. He left with a 23rd-place result, and staring up at Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the standings.
Keselowski was one of several drivers who banged off the wall after Timmy Hill's No. 32 car broke an oil line and doused the track surface in fluid. Although his vehicle was never the same after that, pit strategy helped Keselowski get up to fifth on the final restart, keeping alive hope of extending the streak -- until the No. 2 Ford plummeted through the field at the green flag.
"It was a great streak," said Keselowski, now second in points, 12 behind Earnhardt. "We had a shot at winning the race if the 32 car doesn't blow up in front of us. Four or five cars got hurt in that deal. There's no reason for that guy to do that. Disappointed in him. But eventually they're going to throw circumstances at you that you just can't control. That happens to everybody."
Early on, it looked as if Keselowski had a real chance to match Dale Earnhardt, who reeled off five consecutive top-fives to open the 1995 campaign. Keselowski and Ford stable mate Greg Biffle both changed engines Friday, but showed speed even with their backups in practice and qualifying. Forced to vacate his third-place starting position because of NASCAR's one-engine rule, Keselowski started at the rear and quickly advanced through the field, cracking the top 15 within 30 laps of the green flag.
"Making it look easy right now," spotter Joey Meier told him. But Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon and last week's winner Kasey Kahne were in the wrong place at the wrong time when Hill's oil line cracked, dropping fluid in the path of the cars behind him. Keselowski banged off the wall, and after that the vehicle was never as fast as it had been early in the race.
"I just feel like when I hit the wall I took some speed out of this car, Paul, and I don't know where it's at," Keselowski said over the radio. When the event was over, his crew chief could see why.
"The thing is, this is one of the fastest tracks we go to, so any little bit, these cars are real sensitive to that," Wolfe said after the race. "I'm not sure if we possibly knocked the front toe off a little bit. There was a good bit of paint in the rim, so we hit pretty hard in the front. After that, we were just trying to get it back so we could have a good day."
It was an uphill battle. Keselowski and Wolfe used a late two-tire stop to regain some of their lost track position, but they couldn't hold onto it. For much of the event Keselowski showed concern over his engine temperature, at one point radioing that he had smoke in the cockpit. "Temps skyrocketing here," Keselowski said. The smoke may have eventually abated, but the worry never did.
"Something broke on the motor," Keselowski said afterward. "It was all we could do to finish."
The No. 22 car of his Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano also ran hot -- in more ways than one, given how he pinched Denny Hamlin into the wall on the event's final lap, sparking a brawl between him and the crews of several teams on the frontstretch -- but had so much on the line he pushed it to the end. The No. 2 team wasn't in the same position, so they played it safe trying to get to the end.
"It came to a point where (Keselowski) thought we were going to blow up if we didn't just ride around the last however many laps it was, nine or 10," Wolfe said. "It was more a matter of being able to finish. Obviously, the 22 was hot as well. They were pushing water the whole way. But they were contending for a win, so at that point you just go for it. But once we slid back there a little bit, at that point we might as well get out of it and make sure we don't blow up."
That's quite a contrast to how the car was at the start. "I thought we could win the race," Keselowski. But at the end, with an engine running hot and a posse of drivers on fresher tires behind him, not even the last-gasp pit strategy move was enough to keep him near the front.
"Just one of those days," Wolfe said. "But real pleased with where we're at from a car handling side. Hands down, I feel like (Penske) had the two best cars here in the race today. We drove from 40th to 15th faster than I expected, and I think we were showing them we were one of the best cars out there."
As the race ended, though, so did Keselowski's top-five streak. Asked if the No. 2 team was capable of starting another one, Wolfe just smiled. "Absolutely," the crew chief said. "Absolutely."
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