While many drivers fell victim to tire issues throughout the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway, Kyle Busch would avoid having any issues throughout the day to score the victory. It marks Busch’s 29th Sprint Cup Series victory and first win of the season.
“This is certainly a great day for the 18 team and Interstate Batteries, M&M’s, everyone involved on our Camry,” Busch said. “It’s exciting to be able to win a race this early in the season, although Joe thinks it’s been forever, and to put a winner’s sticker on our roof is certainly good because it just gives us a little bit of — I wouldn’t say relaxation, but it certainly takes the pressure off of winning and making the Chase.”
As the race drew to the final 15 laps, it looked like Jimmie Johnson would be on his way to another hometown victory as he had a healthy lead in front of the field. However, Johnson’s wasn’t immune to having a tire issue as he would have a left front tire flat with seven laps to go, taking him out of the running. In the next four laps, four other drivers had issues and a spin by Clint Bowyer with three to go brought out the caution.
The leaders headed down pit road with Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Paul Menard taking two tires, while the rest of the leaders took four with Kyle Busch leading them off pit road. Once the green flag dropped, Kyle Busch quickly made his way by the four drivers in front of him (Cassill stayed out) to take the lead. Busch would hold off a charge by rookie Kyle Larson in the final turn for the win.
“Now we go out and we’ve still got to continue to make our cars better, and I think as a company, as a whole, the 20 showed speed during stints today and could be really fast early but then he’d fade hard, and then we could show speed early, not be so good in the middle but then come on at the end,” Busch said. “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.”
Larson finished second after winning yesterday’s Nationwide Series race for his best career Sprint Cup Series finish. Larson made a huge charge on the green-white-checkered finish as he made the move from ninth to second.
“I guess you couldn’t ask for more, but was surprised to get up there late in the race,” Larson commented. “We were probably a 12th-place car for most of the day. We struggled with our Target 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.”
“I was thinking I was going to line up eighth but then the 40 stayed out and I had to line up on the bottom and I was disappointed because the bottom had been getting jammed up once we got to Turn 1, and I was surprised, I just watched it on TV and it was pretty wild, we were four wide there into 1. Came out in fourth there, I think, and then got to second off Turn 2 the next lap and thought I might have a shot at Kyle depending on where he’d go into Turn 3, but he was good enough to keep it on the bottom and stay ahead of me. But we’ll take a second. Long race and definitely didn’t expect to run second, so I’ll take it and head back to North Carolina with a smile on my face.”
Kurt Busch’s tire strategy led him to a solid third place finish.
“To be up front and be in position with the Haas Automation Chevy is what we needed,” Busch said. “We needed that after this season started as good in season reasons with leading laps and running up front, but it’s been horrible with our finishes. So it was nice to race the boss, Tony Stewart, today for the win. You’re excited in one moment. The second moment when it sets in, it’s like, wait a minute, neither the 14 nor the 41 won the race today. The strategy call was two tires. Me and Daniel Knost, my crew chief, we both agreed that was the right call. We beat everybody off pit road by a large margin, and it was because everybody’s stop was slow and maybe we should have put four on? It’s something you look back on because you didn’t win.”
Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart rounded out the top five, followed by Jamie McMurray, Brian Vickers, AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard and Carl Edwards. Edwards now leads the points by one point over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Rookie Austin Dillon came back after speeding on pit road to finish 11th, followed by Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt Jr. had to fight back for his top 15 finish after making significant contact with the wall in the first half of the race.
Jeff Gordon finished 13th after leading 23 laps today; Gordon had inherited the lead after Johnson’s tire issue, but did not get a good restart at the end of the event.
Danica Patrick posted her first top 15 of the year with a 14th, followed by Casey Mears.
Many drivers were forced to suffer poor finishes as a result of tire issues throughout the race, including Johnson and Brad Keselowski.
“There were a lot of reasons why we blew a tire today or two or five over the weekend and the field did,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know what to really say about it. As a driver you are left between the choice of driving your car to the limit and blowing a tire out or being a wuss and saving it. I saved it as best as I could and probably arguably was not following the 100-percent rule until the last run. That is what you had to do.”
Some have discussed that Goodyear didn’t bring a good tire to the track this weekend, while others say the wear issues were a result of the big bumps on the backstretch and/or teams not having the correct set-up with regards to camber and air pressure.
“Yeah, well if air pressure was the issue then it is a pretty simple fix, you just enforce a minimum rule,” Keselowski added. “If air pressure was the issue we would have blown this many tires last year because it is all the same air pressure settings as last year. If anything we were more conservative after the issues yesterday. I am not going to say it wasn’t a factor but at the end of the day you can’t add 500-600 pounds of down force to a race car along with a track that has bumps like you are on a freeway in Michigan. The tires just aren’t made for it. There is not enough margin in the cars and tires to do that and that is what we saw today.”
Either way, this is something that should be closely monitored moving forward.
Unfortunately, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle each had mechanical issues that resulted in poor finishes near the back of the field.
Recapping one of the big stories of the day, Denny Hamlin would miss today’s race due to medical issues that were first reported as a sinus infection. Joe Gibbs commented post-race that Hamlin is at a local hospital going through tests to determine what is wrong.
Sam Hornish Jr. ran the No. 11 FedEx Toyota in today’s Sprint Cup race as Hornish was in attendance on “baby-watch stand-by” for Matt Kenseth.