200 laps at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway provided a sellout crowd a show for the ages. Between teams coping with tire wear and a frantic final run to the checkered flag, Sunday’s Auto Club 400 lived up to the expectations after last year’s frantic finish that left Kyle Busch in victory lane and Denny Hamlin in the hospital with a broken back after a wreck with Joey Logano battling for the lead on the last lap. Ironically, Sunday’s race started without Hamlin after a sinus infection imparing his vision caused him to leave for the hospital before the race. Sam Hornish Jr. took over driving duties for Hamlin and managed to come away with a 17th place finish.
But Sunday’s major story during the race was teams pushing the fine line between performance and destroying their tires throughout the race. A combination of factors, including teams running lower left side tire pressures than recommended, cars having more downforce and speedway officials grinding out bumps on the track’s backstretch led to several left side tire failures during the course of 400 miles. Several drivers contending for the win had their shots ruined by blown left side tires, including Jimmie Johnson. Johnson led over half the race only to lose the lead with six laps to go when his left front tire blew out, handing the lead to teammate Jeff Gordon. Gordon himself had a tumultuous race, which began with a pit road speeding penalty 20 laps in that resulted in the #24 car passing nearly the entire field before another miscue sent him to the back. In a situation similar to Bristol’s race ending, an official caused the pit road entry lights to not switch until after Gordon had passed the entry under caution. Gordon had to pit a lap later and then move through the field again.
The final 5 laps of the race became a tense showdown between Gordon and his tires to see whether the four-time Sprint Cup champion could make it to the end without an issue. But more tire problems arose after Johnson’s blowout and several cars began to come to pit road with blown out tires. Last week’s runner-up, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., had a left rear go flat that resulted in last year’s rookie of the year to spin out, but no caution was thrown for his spin. With two laps to go Clint Bowyer had a similar situation, but as he spun in turn three NASCAR threw the yellow, setting up green-white-checkered finish that erased Gordon’s nearly eight second lead over Kyle Busch.
During the caution Landon Cassill stayed out of the pits and inherited the lead, but was quickly swept away by the rest of the field on the restart. Kurt Busch took over the lead from Cassill, only to be passed out of turn two on the final lap by his brother Kyle. Following closely in the younger Busch’s tire tracks was Saturday’s Nationwide race winner Kyle Larson, as he moved into second as Busch took over the lead. Larson was unable to make a challenge for the race lead and Kyle Busch made it back to the line to claim his first victory of the season and second in a row at Auto Club Speedway. Busch’s win makes it five different winners in the first five races of the season and practically guarantees him a spot in the Chase. Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart finished third and fifth, respectively, with pole-sitter Matt Kenseth splitting the two in fourth.