FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Kyle Busch sent Fontana off in style Sunday, storming up from the back after an early penalty and earning his first victory for Richard Childress Racing while winning on this Southern California track for the fifth time.
Busch held off Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain in NASCAR’s final race on the two miles of gloriously weathered asphalt at Auto Club Speedway, which will soon be demolished to make room for a half-mile track.
Busch drove his Chevrolet to victory in only his second race with RCR, which scooped him up in December after his 15-year tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing ended. This win was Busch’s first since Bristol last season on a dirt track, and his first on pavement since Pocono in 2021.
With his 61st career victory, Busch earned a win in his record 19th consecutive Cup season, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.
“I think it ranks high, just because it ranks to the fact of, ‘I can do it,’” Busch said. “You never doubt yourself, but sometimes you do … when you put yourself in a different situation. I’m going to enjoy it for sure, and hopefully there’s many more to go.”
Busch is a Las Vegas native who has enjoyed plenty of highlights just down the I-15 at Fontana: He got his first Cup victory at this speedway back in 2005 in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, and only Jimmie Johnson (6) earned more Cup victories at Fontana than Busch.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than being able to go to Victory Lane,” Busch said. “I death-gripped that wheel throughout the second half of that race, but we got the victory.”
Busch was sent to the back early in the race for speeding on pit road, and the penalty infuriated a driver whose favorite fuel often appears to be anger. He drove all the way back up the field to pass Michael McDowell for the lead with 20 laps to go.
“I love getting speed penalties just so I can make it more exciting and come back up through the field,” Busch said. “Just kidding. I hate speeding penalties.”
The traditional five-wide salute before the race carried added poignancy because of the finality of this race: NASCAR is shutting down the track built by Roger Penske with vaguely stated plans to build a new track in its place, along with selling off much of the surrounding property.
The decision brings an end to an entertaining era for stock car racing in Southern California’s rich car culture. The big track east of Los Angeles is a favorite of nearly every racer in multiple disciplines, with its coarse grip and wide-open spaces creating impressive racing for a quarter-century.
“I love California,” Busch said. “California Speedway has always been great to me. The fans have always been great.”
NASCAR currently has nowhere to race in Southern California in 2024, and the new track might not even be ready by 2025 — if it happens at all. The promotion hasn’t confirmed any plans to return to the population-rich Los Angeles area, not even for a third edition of the preseason Clash at the Coliseum.
A week of unusual Southern California rainstorms and occasional snow finally abated Saturday night, and NASCAR dried the asphalt impressively before the race. Although sand and debris bothered some drivers, the track even managed to avoid any major problems from collected rainwater weeping out of cracks in the track.
The race featured a major wreck out of a restart shortly before the midway point involving 10 cars, the most in any collision in a Cup race at Fontana. Four drivers — including pole-sitter Christopher Bell — couldn’t continue after the wreck that sent several cars skidding into across infield.
Defending champion Kyle Larson was out of contention after developing engine trouble on the opening laps. Shortly after Brad Keselowski spun from contact with Corey LaJoie, Busch was sent to the back.
Shortly after Chastain won the opening stage, local favorite Daniel Suárez — who nearly won at Fontana last year — was sent to the back, also for speeding.
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