FONTANA, Calif. – A day full of tire failures at Auto Club Speedway ended with a wild two lap dash to the finish, with Kyle Busch holding off rookie Kyle Larson to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400.
While Busch was the one in victory lane, the talk of the day was the many tire failures during the 400-mile event. Green flag runs were minimal, with the field only able to run between 20 and 25 laps before left-side tires began to fail throughout the field.
The dominant car all day belonged to Jimmie Johnson, a five-time race winner at Auto Club Speedway. He was out in front of the field when the caution flag waved on lap 167 when David Gilliland crash in turn four.
The entire field came down pit road for tires, with Johnson getting off pit road first. He maintained the lead on the restart as his teammate Jeff Gordon settled into second place. Johnson grew his gap to more than two seconds by lap 190, but things were about to go bad for the six-time series champion.
On lap 194 Johnson suddenly slowed on the backstretch, the latest victim of a flat tire. That handed the lead to Gordon, who had a comfortable margin over the battle for second between Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch.
As Gordon attempted to nurse his Chevrolet to the finish, things started to go wrong in the field behind him. Multiple drivers, including Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman, all slowed with flat tires. Finally with two laps to go Bowyer spun in turn four, forcing NASCAR to wave the caution flag.
With more than 25 laps on their tires, nearly the entire field came down pit road for fresh rubber ahead of the green-white-checkered restart. The only driver who opted not to come down pit road was Landon Cassill, who assumed the race lead.
Kurt Busch ended up getting off pit road first by taking two tires. He was followed by his teammate Tony Stewart and Paul Menard, who also opted for two tires. The first driver off pit road with four tires was Kyle Busch, who lined up fifth for the restart.
When the green flag waved for the restart things got intense. Cassill moved to the high side and quickly fell through the field as Kurt Busch and Stewart began battling for the lead. The Stewart-Haas Racing teammates stayed side-by-side for an entire lap as Kyle Busch stalked them.
Entering turn one Kyle Busch dove low, coming out of turn two ahead of both his older brother Kurt Busch and Stewart. Meanwhile, while Kyle Busch was taking the lead, Larson had raced from ninth all the way up to second. He fell in line right behind Kyle Busch as they raced towards turn three.
Larson, who held off Kyle Busch yesterday to win his first NASCAR Nationwide Series race, dove low in an attempt to steal the lead away in the final corners. Kyle Busch countered by going lower, blocking Larson’s run through turns three and four.
That was enough to allow Kyle Busch to pull away out of turn four and pick up his second-straight victory at Auto Club Speedway.
“Holy cow,” Busch said upon exiting his car in victory lane. “What do you expect when you get a green-white-checkered finish and everybody comes down pit road to put four tires on. That’s a Days of Thunder thing right there.”
Busch lead only five laps all day, but led the most important one.
“Unbelievable day,” Busch said.
Larson’s second-place finish was his best result in nine NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. It comes one day after Larson held off Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick to win his first NASCAR Nationwide Series race.
“I wanted to start eighth (on the restart) but the 40 (Cassill) stayed out and I started ninth. I thought we were in trouble there, or at least not going to be able to get to the front,” Larson said. “I don’t know where everybody went but I somehow ended up in second there and I was right behind Kyle on the backstretch.
“It went through my mind, like, hey, I might sweep the weekend here. Heck of a day for this Target Chevy,” Larson said. “Just hats off to everybody on this car. Man, what a weekend.”
Kurt Busch crossed the line third, his best finish since joining Stewart-Haas Racing. Polesitter Matt Kenseth and Stewart completed the top five.
Johnson, who led a race-high 104 laps, was scored 24th at the finish.
“We did an awesome job as a race team and we did everything we could to win the race today,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately something out of our control let us down. I had that feeling. I thought I was going to win here at my home track once again. Just a bummer it didn’t work out.”
Sunday’s race featured a track record 35 lead changes as well as nine caution flags.