Kyle Busch survived a wild war of attrition at Auto Club Speedway Sunday, winning the Auto Club 400 with a last-lap pass for the second consecutive time.
Busch came out of nowhere in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch were dueling for the top spot on the final lap. Kyle made a strong pass of Stewart in Turn 2 to capture the 29th race victory in his Sprint Cup career.
"Taking the white flag going into the middle, I was going to run the middle," said Kyle, who led only five of 206 laps. "I was committed to the middle and Tony went off in there on the bottom and then slid up in front of me, so I kind of tried to cut left as quick as I could and get back on the gas and come off Turn 2 and was able to pass both Kurt and Tony for the lead. From there on out, man, it was my race to lose."
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Last year here, Busch passed Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin to win on the last lap.
With Sunday’s victory, Busch became the fifth different winner in five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races this year and has all but locked himself into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"It doesn’t matter how you win them, but the win, being in here in Victory Lane is what it’s all about," said Kyle.
Rookie Kyle Larson finished second ahead of Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Stewart. The race featured a record 35 lead changes.
It was a huge weekend for Larson, who won his first NASCAR Nationwide Series race on Saturday. "We’ll take a second," Larson said. "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."
As for the elder of the two Busch brothers, this was Kurt’s first top-20 finish all year, which helped ease the sting of not winning.
"It was nice to race the boss, Tony Stewart, today for the win," Kurt said. You’re excited in one moment. The second moment when it sets in, it’s like, wait a minute, neither the 14 (Stewart) nor the 41 (Kurt) won the race today."
But tires were the story of the day, as numerous failures throughout the day — failures Goodyear blamed on too much rear camber and too low air pressures — knocked out a number of contenders, including five-time ACS winner Jimmie Johnson, who led a race-high 105 laps before blowing a left-front tire with seven laps to go.
The drama began before the green flag when Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs announced that Denny Hamlin would miss the race with a sinus problem that affected his vision.
When the green flag flew, second-qualifier Brad Keselowski went to the lead on the opening lap, pulling away from pole-sitter Kenseth.
On Lap 19, tire problems first showed up, as Kevin Harvick blew a left-rear tire, the same issue many teams had on Saturday. Under the ensuing caution, Jeff Gordon was nailed for speeding and had to drop from second to the rear of the field for the restart.
Keselowski set the early pace, leading 34 of the first 40 laps.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the second driver with tire problems, blowing a left-front tire and hitting the Turn 2 wall on Lap 43.
At the halfway point, Lap 100, Johnson was out front, having led 35 laps at that point. Gordon took his first lead on Lap 106, quickly dispatching Johnson out front.
Then in short order, the Roush Fenway Racing Fords of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards had flat left-rear tires, Edwards spinning to bring out a caution on Lap 119.
With tires now a huge concern, the leaders pitted and Kenseth emerged in the lead over Johnson, Kyle Busch and Gordon.
Johnson went back to the lead on Lap 127 and Gordon quickly moved behind him into second. Initially, Johnson led Gordon by about 2.5 seconds, but that margin dropped to 0.391 seconds by Lap 140.
Just as Gordon caught Johnson on Lap 142, the caution came out for debris.
On Lap 178, Johnson led by 0.720 seconds, but Gordon was closing. But Johnson lost a tire with seven laps to go and then Clint Bowyer spun with three laps to go to bring out a caution.
That sent the leaders down pit road for tires. Kurt Busch took just two tires and most of the others took four, setting up a shootout for the victory. Landon Cassill stayed out on old tires and inherited the lead going into the green-white-checkered restart.
On the final restart, Kurt Busch and Stewart battled for the lead and that allowed Kyle to slip by on the final lap and take the victory.