NASCAR Sprint Cup: Kyle Busch wins Auto Club 400

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMarch 23, 2014 

  • Top finishers

    DriverCar
    1. Kyle BuschToyota
    2. Kyle LarsonChevrolet
    3. Kurt BuschChevrolet
    4. Matt Kenseth Toyota
    5. Tony StewartChevrolet

    Complete results and points

    standings, 3B

    Inside

    Hamlin out again: Vision problems park Denny Hamlin, who is replaced by Sam Hornish. 3B

— This show is likely to be in reruns for a long, long time.

For the third time in two weeks – and the first time in the Sprint Cup Series – the end of a NASCAR race came down to a duel between one of NASCAR’s current top stars and a future one.

Sunday’s Auto Club 400 was Kyle Busch vs. Kyle Larson, Round 3 this season.

After a late-race restart and two-lap overtime, Busch held off a fast-approaching Larson at Auto Club Speedway to earn his first Cup series win of the season.

On Saturday, Larson earned the first Nationwide Series victory of his career by besting Kevin Harvick and Busch, the all-time wins leader in that series. A week ago in Bristol Tenn., Busch bested Larson for the Nationwide victory.

“He was behind us most of the day,” Busch said of Larson. “I never even saw him, never even knew he was on the race track really.

“But there when it comes down to crunch time and the time matters most – people would have figured I would have finished fifth or sixth – but there we were ready for the win, and so was Larson.”

It has become a common refrain in NASCAR, but it has been producing exciting finishes for race fans.

With the win – the 29th of his career – Busch has all-but clinched a spot in the championship Chase thanks to NASCAR’s new title format.

“With the race that we had today, to be in Victory Lane is a huge relief,” Busch said. “We’re excited about that and now we’ve just got to put our focus forward on continuing to work hard.

“I’m looking forward to the next few weeks.”

Jimmie Johnson actually appeared to have the win in hand – he led a race-high 104 laps – but a flat left-front tire on Lap 194 derailed his chance at the victory.

Jeff Gordon, who was running second at the time, moved into the lead, but a caution with two of the scheduled 200 laps remaining bunched the field one last time.

All of the lead-lap cars elected to pit for either two or four tires except Landon Cassill, who remained on the track and took over the lead.

On the restart, however, Cassill was overrun with the cars on new tires and quickly faded. Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart then battled for the lead until Kyle Busch and Larson powered past them.

On the last lap, the race became Kyle vs. Kyle.

“What a shoe that boy is,” Busch said. “If he would have gotten alongside of me it would have been a whale of a race.

“I drove off into Turn 3, but I heard (from my spotter), ‘Car inside on my left.’ If he drove it in further than I did, Jesus must have told him to stop.”

Kurt Busch ended up third, Matt Kenseth was fourth and Stewart was fifth. Johnson ended up 24th, the last car on the lead lap.

Carl Edwards, who won his first race of the season last weekend at Bristol, now leads the series standings. He holds a one-point advantage over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 12th. Edwards finished 10th.

“I was thinking I was going to line up eighth,” Larson said, “but then (Cassill) stayed out and I had to line up on the bottom. I was disappointed because the bottom had been getting jammed up once we got to Turn 1 – it was pretty wild, we were four-wide there into (Turn) 1.

“I 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.”

Gordon was among the most vocal in expressing disappointment with the wild ending to Sunday’s race.

“I hate the caution came out,” he said. “I hate Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened. They are so good at what they do, and that is just uncalled for. We were having a tire issue there on that last long run, and I just backed off.

“When I saw (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.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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