It’s very likely Kyle Busch didn’t think he had a chance at victory in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. After all, he said that he had a “mediocre car all day.”
But sometime things can change for the better – and at the last moment.
Busch avoided the tire problems that plagued the field, overcame his handling problems and won the race on the last lap of a green-white-checkered restart.
Perhaps no one was more surprised than he was.
“I came off the fourth turn in disbelief that we won this thing, because we were mediocre all day,” said Busch, who has now won at Fontana for two years straight. “It was really weird, not a race we’re typically used to.”
That may be, but Busch will take the results any way he can get them. He is the fifth different winner in 2014 and his victory all but assures him a position in this year’s 16-man Chase for the Sprint Cup.
He’s got his shot at a championship. And despite his achievements – 29 career victories – he’s never won one.
“This was a ‘Days of Thunder’ thing,” Busch said. “Holy cow, what do you expect with a green-white-checkered finish where most everyone has to come down for four tires?
“But with this win, there’s a load off my shoulders and I can now go out the rest of the season and race the way I want to.”
Busch battled handling problems in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota throughout the race. The car was loose and had no grip on the rough Auto Club surface.
Crew chief Dave Rogers called for numerous track bar and air pressure changes to cure the problems.
During a 26-lap green flag run, Busch’s car was mired in eighth place and seemingly going nowhere. But he began to pick off rivals one by one and was in third place by lap 194 of 200 and second on lap 196.
On lap 197 a caution came out after Clint Bowyer’s Toyota spun. For Rogers, there was nothing else to do but give his driver four fresh tires.
Busch came out fifth in the running but more important, he was the first driver with fresh rubber all around.
On the restart, it was all Busch.
He split the cars of brother Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart, teammates at Stewart Haas Racing, and then effectively blocked rookie Kyle Larson to earn his third career win at the two-mile Auto Club track.“I knew four tires was going to win the race, so I’m glad Dave called that,” said Busch, who led only five laps in the race.
“There was some great racing up front between Tony and Kurt – it was really interesting to watch that. “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.“I was able to keep Kyle Larson behind me.
Man, what a shoe that boy is.”Indeed, Larson, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, had a very impressive weekend.
He won the Nationwide Series on the day prior to the Auto Club 400, giving him a one-two sweep in two events.“Yeah, it’s been a really good weekend,” said Larson.
“I guess you couldn’t ask for more, but I was surprised to get up there late in the race. We were probably a 12thplace car for most of the day.
“We struggled with our Chevy being too loose on exit but still too tight in the center. We tightened the exit up and got way too tight in the center.
“My guys worked really hard all day long to find that right balance, and right there on the last pit stop we were able to make good enough adjustments where we could go hard for a couple laps.”“Good adjustments” by other teams might have saved them from the tire problems that struck many.Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were among the drivers who had problems with their tires – specifically, left-side blowouts in most cases.
Some drivers suggested the cause was the Goodyear tire. Others maintained it was the abrasiveness of the track surface.Goodyear maintained it was aggressive setups and air pressure that cause the problems.
The Gen 6 car has more down force with a larger rear spoiler.Many teams ran as little as 11 psi in the tires. Goodyear recommended 22 psi.
Also, many teams utilized increased camber.Not surprisingly blown tires were anticipated and began as early as practice.
“Goodyear is doing a good job,” said Kurt Busch, who finished third.
“We have faster cars, more down force and NASCAR allows us to put in whatever camber we want.
“Therefore, it’s up to the team’s discretion if you are going to have a problem or not.
”Not so, said Keselowski.“If air pressure was the issue, then we would have blown as many tires last year, because it’s all the same air pressure settings as last season,” he said.
“You just can’t add 500-600 pounds of down force to a car along with a track that has bumps like you are on a Michigan freeway.
“The tires had no margin from last year and I expect similar issues throughout the season.”
While tire problems sent Edwards to 10th place and Earnhardt Jr. to 12th, they are now one-two in the point standings, with Edwards leading by a single point. Keselowski, who tumbled to 26th at Fontana, fell from first to fourth in the standings.
Only seven points separate No. 1 from No. 5.