It was Mission Accomplished for Mission 18 on Sunday afternoon at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., as Kyle Busch dominated and won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400. But the victory wasn’t nearly as easy as it appeared.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), led seven times for a race-high 125 laps to bring home his first win of the season. It also was the first Sprint Cup win at Fontana for JGR and for manufacturer Toyota at its hometown track.
“Man, feels so good to finally win with our Interstate Batteries Camry,” said Busch, who recorded his 25th career Sprint Cup victory and second win at Fontana. “We weren’t going to win if it wasn’t for those two (Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano) battling. If they would have been single-file and just racing, it would have went down in order. I can’t say enough about all of Joe Gibbs Racing. Everybody at TRD — we appreciate their support, of course. Being right here in California — finally, finally we get the ‘home’ win for Toyota. Finally we get a win for Joe (Gibbs, owner) and for Norm Miller (chairman, Interstate Batteries) and all of Interstate Batteries dealers and distributors. I drove my butt off right there at the end.”
After qualifying a solid fourth in the 43-car field, Busch showed his strength from the start, grabbing the lead from pole sitter and teammate Denny Hamlin on lap 11. Busch then set the pace for many of the remaining laps. Crew chief Dave Rogers still made small tweaks on each pit stop to help the handling of Busch’s Interstate Batteries Toyota, using air pressure and wedge adjustments to help correct a slight tight-handling condition in the center of the track’s corners.
But with less than 30 laps to go and Busch leading, a series of cautions changed the complexion of the dash to the finish. Busch had pitted for the final time on lap 167 of the 200-lap race. A fast pit stop by the Interstate Batteries team helped Busch gain a whopping five-second lead on second-place Kevin Harvick. But just four laps later, the caution waved for debris. The large lead was wiped away.
With the caution waving twice more during the last 23 laps with Busch out front, Rogers had some tough decisions to make. Stay out and keep the track position or pit for tires on the worn Auto Club Speedway surface. When the caution waved for the final time with 14 laps to go, Rogers elected to stay out while many other behind him pitted for tires.
Busch held off the challengers behind him until teammate Hamlin and Logano snatched the lead from him with just six laps to go. As the field took the white flag, it looked as if Busch would have to settle for a heartbreaking third-place finish after a dominant day. But as Logano and Hamlin exited turn four, they ran into each other and both began to spin, allowing Busch to sneak by on the high line and bring the Interstate Batteries Camry to the checkered flag first. Mission Accomplished.
“They had fresh tires, and we didn’t there at the end,” Busch said. “We just ran real hard on that last restart, and I was really bad at pushing and really tight and trying to make good time and doing what I could on the top side. I figured if they come back to me, they come back to me. They got to racing and racing really hard, and I think they forgot about me and I ran them all down. And there when they started getting together a little bit, I was like, ‘Man, I got to get by them before they crash.’ I think I was going by as they were crashing.”
Busch’s JGR teammates – Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Toyota Camry, and Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry – finished seventh and 25th, respectively.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished behind Busch in the runner-up spot as the race ended under caution for the last-lap crash involving Logano and Hamlin. Logano, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-five, while Greg Biffle, Kenseth, Paul Menard, Kasey Kahne and Newman comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were nine caution periods for 35 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the 200-lap race.
With round five of 36 complete, Busch leads the JGR trio in the championship standings. He gained four spots and sits six with 163 points, 36 behind new series leader Earnhardt.
Hamlin dropped four spots in the standings to 10th with 145 points, 54 behind Earnhardt. Kenseth gained two spots and jumped to 11th with 141 points, 58 out of the lead.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the STP Gas Booster 500 Sunday, April 7 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. The race starts at 1 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by FOX beginning with its pre-race show at 12:30 p.m.