Busch Dominates, but Settles for Solid Third-Place Finish at Fontana
Interstate Batteries Team Leads Race-High 151 Laps, Gains Two Spots in the Standings
Kyle Busch dominated Sunday’s Auto Club 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., leading five times for a race-high 151 laps. But despite the strong effort, the driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) couldn’t hold off the hard charges of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick in a nine-lap shootout to the finish, and he wound up third.
“We had such a great Interstate Batteries Camry today,” said Busch, who now has nine top-10 finishes in 14 career Sprint Cup starts at Fontana. “We seemed to lose the handle a little bit two runs from the end and, especially with that last set of tires, we just didn’t quite have what it took in order to keep the front end under the car and then the back end under the car on the exits of the corner. I just couldn’t get the right speed that I needed.
“The guys did a great job this weekend. The Interstate Batteries Camry was good from when we unloaded the second one on Friday after I wrecked the primary car in practice. I can’t say enough about the guys on pit road and the guys back at the shop. They did a great job for us and got us in position and, unfortunately, I couldn’t get the job done today. I didn’t have what it took there at the end. It’s kind of disappointing to end up third after such a strong day.”
Busch won Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the 2-mile oval and came into Sunday’s Sprint Cup race looking for his second consecutive weekend sweep, as he took both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races last weekend at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
After starting eighth in the 43-car field, Busch appeared to have what it took for another weekend sweep as he quickly grabbed the lead from teammate Denny Hamlin on lap 22. From there, Busch set the pace for much of the 400-mile race. Even though he had a strong car, crew chief Dave Rogers made small adjustments on each stop to help the handling of Busch’s Interstate Batteries Toyota, using air pressure and track bar adjustments to help an ever so slight tight-handling condition in the center of the track’s corners.
During a race that saw several long, green flag runs, the Interstate Batteries over-the-wall crew helped lengthen Busch’s lead as they outpaced the competition on pit road time and time again.
But as the laps wound down and with Busch ahead by a healthy margin, a caution on lap 172 of the 200-lap race erased his comfortable lead. On the ensuing restart, Busch jumped ahead of the second and third-place Chevrolets of Johnson and Tony Stewart, respectively, and continued to hold the lead as another caution appeared on lap 187.
The fourth and final caution of the day setup a nine-lap shootout as Busch, Johnson, Stewart and Harvick battled it out for the win. Busch did his best to stay ahead of the pack behind him, holding off Johnson for the first six laps. But with just three laps remaining, Busch couldn’t hold the five-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion behind him any longer. He lost the lead to Johnson, and soon afterward, Harvick was also able to make his way past Busch before slipping by Johnson for the win on the final lap.
“I could see them growing bigger in the mirror, so I knew they (Johnson and Harvick) were coming,” said Busch of the final nine-lap shootout. “I knew that the top was my best friend all day – all weekend. But when I got up there, it was just real tight and it just wouldn’t turn and I’d get in the fence almost. I just had to slow the car down in the center of the corner so I wouldn’t get in the wall and then when I’d try to leave the corner, I’d be too loose. Those guys were just better at the end.”
Busch’s JGR teammates – Joey Logano, driver of the No. 20 Toyota Camry, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry – finished 25th and 39th respectively. Hamlin experienced engine problems and completed only 105 laps.
Harvick’s victory in the Auto Club 400 was the 15th of his Sprint Cup career, his first of the season and his first at Fontana. Johnson finished .144 of a second behind him in the runner-up spot, while Busch, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five. Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne and pole-sitter Juan Pablo Montoya comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were four caution periods for 16 laps, with seven drivers failing to finish.
With round five of 36 complete, Busch now leads the JGR trio in the championship standings. He moved up two spots to fourth with 176 points, 11 markers back of new series leader Edwards.
Hamlin dropped to 21st in the standings with 112 points, 75 markers out of the top spot. Logano gained one spot and now sits 29th with 93 points, 94 markers behind Edwards.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the April 3 Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.