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Kyle Busch avoids tire issues to win at Auto Club Speedway

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 from Fontana California March 23, 2014
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 from Fontana California March 23, 2014
Greg Engle, Getty Images

Kyle Busch led when it mattered coming from fourth spot on a green white checkered flag restart to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 Sunday.

Kyle Busch celebrates his win in Fontana Ca. Sunday.
Getty Images

In a race that saw a record 35 lead changes, Busch led only six laps but was able to avoid tire troubles that plagued many contenders , including Jimmie Johnson who was the class of the field until seven laps to go when he lost the left front tire on his Chevy and handed the race to Jeff Gordon. Gordon had reported a vibration with ten laps to go but looked in position to win in front by nearly three seconds in the closing laps.

After Johnson drivers running in the top 10 began to lose tires including Brad Keselowski, then Marcos Ambrose and finally Clint Bowyer who spun and brought out the caution with two laps to go and setup the green white checkered flag finish.

During the ensuing pit stops, Kurt Busch took two tires and led off pit road, Tony Stewart was second, Paul Menard third, Kyle Busch fourth then Bowyer and Kenseth all who took two tires and all ahead of Gordon. Landon Cassill elected to stay out and was shown the leader.

Stewart dove to the bottom and raced Kurt Busch as the field went down the backstretch. Kyle Busch was behind his older brother on the top side. Kyle worked his way to the lead but rookie Kyle Larson shot to the outside and in front of Kyle Busch. Busch was able to hold off Larson however and score the win. It was opposite of the finish in the Nationwide race the day prior when Larson held off Busch for the win.

“Man oh man. The first thing that comes to mind when the caution came out with just a few laps to go -- that was total Rowdy Burns ‘Days of Thunder’ right there,” Busch said. “There’s a couple laps to go -- I'm not pitting. Everybody has to pit, Cole (Trickle), we’re coming down for four tires because there’s a green-white-checkered coming. I knew four tires was going to win the race, so I’m glad Dave (Rogers, crew chief) called that.”

Busch was able to hold off Larson however and score the win. It was opposite of the finish in the Nationwide race the day prior when Larson held off Busch for the win.

“There was some great racing up front between Tony (Stewart) and Kurt (Busch) there -- it was really interesting to watch that,” Busch said. “I went into turn one thinking I’m going to run the middle and then Tony started sliding off the bottom and I’m like, ‘Nope, not having it.’ I had to get some brake and cut my car to the left and drove underneath him and got him cleared off turn two and I was able to keep Kyle Larson behind me. Man, what a shoe that boy is. If he would have gotten alongside of me it would have been a whale of a race. I drove off into turn three, but I heard car inside on my left. If he drove it in further than I did, Jesus must have told him to stop.”

The biggest prerace news came shortly before the engines fired. Denny Hamlin pulled out of the race citing a sinus infection; teammate in the Nationwide Series Sam Hornish Jr. jumped behind the wheel of the No. 11 Toyota.

Keselowski took the lead from polesitter Matt Kenseth at the start with Clint Bowyer second and Kevin Harvick third. By the fifth lap Bowyer was contesting Keselowski for the lead while Gordon moved into third. Five laps later Keselowski moved solidly to the front while Gordon began to catch up. On lap 14 Gordon moved past Bowyer for second. Keselowski and Gordon were soon battling for the lead. The first caution came on lap 18 when Harvick lost a left rear tire while running fifth. The leaders came in for the first stops of the day. Keselowski won the race off pit road while Kyle Busch gained four spots and was second ahead of Gordon. Gordon was penalized for speeding on pit road and forced to give his third place spot up and restarted 43rd.

Busch was able to shoot to the lead on the inside on the restart as Keselowski was forced to deal with Jimmie Johnson for second. On lap 27, Keselowski dove low on the inside and retook the lead. A lap later Johnson took over second, Busch fell to third. On lap 33, Johnson and Keselowski were fighting for the lead.

The second caution came out when Dale Earnhardt Jr. running in ninth hit the wall in turn 2 on lap 41 with a flat left front tire. The leaders came in for their second stops of the day; Johnson won the race off pit road followed by Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch and Bowyer behind. Keselowski reported that he too had a tire going down making the caution a timely one.

Busch dove to the inside from third under Vickers on the restart as Johnson went to the lead. Two laps later Vickers slid back into second as Busch began to drop back. By lap 55 Gordon was back inside the top ten in ninth.

Stewart running in 18th,spun on lap 57 exiting turn 2 bringing out the third caution. The leaders came in for pit stops. In part due to some confusion, some of the leaders stayed out including Keselowski who led to the green on lap 61; he wasn’t there long as Johnson shot past with fresher tires. Two laps later Keselowski was 15th, while up front Johnson had stretched his lead out to nearly a second. Vickers was second, Ryan Newman third.

The fourth caution came out on lap 70 when Aric Almirola was tagged by Brian Scott sending both spinning; leaders came in for pit stops. Newman was the only one among the leaders not to pit. Newman didn’t stay in the lead long as he was soon being passed wholesale while up front Kenseth and Johnson took over one and two. Vickers was third. Vickers took over second on lap 81. On lap 85 Johnson moved forward and took the lead from Kenseth just as the fifth caution came out on lap 86 when Parker Kligerman spun in turn 3. The leaders hit pit road. Kenseth won off pit road, Johnson was second, Gordon third.

Johnson and Kenseth again staged a drag race for the lead on the restart on lap 90. Johnson was able to move ahead a lap later. Gordon was staging an impressive comeback run after his speeding penalty and moved into fourth. At the halfway point, Johnson led with Gordon now in second, Kenseth was third. Gordon made his comeback complete on lap 106 as he passed Johnson for the lead. Joey Logano who had been running fifth, slowed on lap 114 with a vibration; he would go to the garage and the crew would change the rear gear, he would return 10 laps down.

Carl Edwards lost a tire and spun on lap 118 bringing out the sixth caution. The leaders came in for stops with Kenseth again winning the race off; Johnson was second, Kyle Busch third. The restart came on lap 122 with Kenseth shooting to the lead, followed by Busch. Busch was soon being passed by Johnson who was sitting his sights on the lead; by lap 126 Johnson was able to get by Kenseth and retake the lead. Gordon in third was slowly catching Kenseth for second. Johnson stretched his lead out to 1.6 seconds. A few laps later Kenseth began to drop back and by 135 was in fifth. Harvick running in fourth had another flat tire on lap 138 and was forced in under green. Gordon caught Johnson a few laps later and was fighting for the lead as the sixth caution came out for debris on lap 142.

The leaders came in for stop, with Johnson winning the race off pit road and Kenseth second. The restart came with 52 laps to go. Johnson and Kenseth raced side by side with neither gaining an advantage for two laps; at lap 150 Johnson was able to pull slightly ahead, but Kenseth was close behind.

By lap 165 Gordon had caught Johnson and was looking for the lead. Gordon’s attempt for the lead was thwarted on lap 168 when the seventh caution came out after Josh Wise spun. The leaders came in for pit stops; Johnson led off pit road, Gordon was second, Kenseth was third, Bowyer fourth.

The restart came with 27 laps to go. Gordon was able to hang with Johnson until the exit of turn 2 when Johnson was able to pull ahead. Kurt Busch slotted into third. Gordon had been strong on the long runs began catching Johnson with 20 to go.

Johnson however began to build a cushion with 15 to go. A few laps later Gordon reported that he was feeling a vibration in his Chevy and was hoping to hold on for the finish; with 10 to go Johnson had stretched his lead out to nearly two seconds. It wasn’t to be a seventh win for Johnson however as he lost the left front tire on his Chevy and pitted. Gordon inherited the lead and was in front by nearly three seconds. After Johnson though, drivers running in the top 10 began to lose tires including Keselowski, then Marcos Ambrose and finally Bowyer who spun and brought out the caution with two laps to go and setting up the green white checkered flag finish.

“We were having a tire issue there on that last long run and I just backed off,” Gordon said. “When I saw the No. 48 (Johnson ) had issues I was just hoping we would make it to the end and I was just going as slow as I possibly could trying to maintain the lead and cars were just blowing tires left and right all around me. It’s unfortunate that was happening. But most importantly that the caution came out because we did not need that restart.”

The win was the third at Auto Club Speedway for Busch who won the same race last year and the 29th of his career.

“We could show speed early, not be so good in the middle but then come on at the end,” Busch said of his race Sunday. “So we're kind of all over the place, I feel like. But all in all, with the race that we had today, to be in victory lane is a huge relief. We're excited about that and now we've just got to put our focus forward on continuing to work hard and look forward to the next few weeks.”

Behind Busch and Larson, Kurt Busch was third, Kenseth fourth and Stewart fifth. Jamie McMurray was sixth, Brian Vickers seventh, Menard was ninth with Edwards rounding out the top 10.

Gordon was scored 13th. Johnson 24th.

“We did an awesome job as a race team,” Johnson said. “We did everything we could to win the race today, unfortunately something out of our control let us down. I had that feeling I thought we were going to win here at my home track once again and just a bummer it didn’t work out.”

Edwards took over the points lead over Earnhardt Jr. who finished 12th as the series heads to Martinsville for next Sunday’s STP 400.

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