Kyle Busch gets 1st RCR victory in Fontana's NASCAR farewell
By GREG BEACHAM
FONTANA, Calif. (AP) Kyle Busch still smiles at the memory of getting thrown out of California Speedway during his first competitive trip here in 2001. The 16-year-old upstart dominated a NASCAR Truck Series practice, only to be told he couldn't run in a race sponsored by Marlboro because he was too young to smoke.
"That was my `Welcome to NASCAR' moment and my `Welcome to California Speedway' moment," Busch said.
Anger, conflict and disrespect have always appeared to be Busch's favorite fuels, and the record-setting veteran burned plenty of them Sunday while rewarding his new team - and sending this beloved track off in style.
Busch stormed up from the back after an early speeding penalty to earn his first victory for Richard Childress Racing, winning on this two-mile Southern California track for the fifth and final time.
Busch held off Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain in the NASCAR Cup Series' final race on the gloriously weathered asphalt at Auto Club Speedway, which will soon be demolished to make room for a proposed half-mile track. Busch asked Fontana officials for a chunk of that asphalt as a souvenir after he burned it up one last time on his way to Victory Lane.
"That's what I enjoy the most about this racetrack," Busch said. "It's big. It gets spread out. But man, you can move around and you can spread out and you can make your own destiny by trying to find something that will work for your race car. It's a sad day for me to see this racetrack in its last race being a two-mile configuration. Glad I was able to win the final run here."
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. Busch said he set his focus on Petty's longevity record "a long, long time ago."
"I'm just so thankful for the opportunity to set that bar, and would love to continue to keep raising it," Busch said.
The victory also was the combined 95th win by Kyle and Kurt Busch, breaking the NASCAR record for brothers previously held by Bobby and Donnie Allison.
Elliott finished 2.998 seconds behind Busch in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Daniel Suarez finished fourth, and Kevin Harvick was fifth in the Bakersfield native's 750th Cup start.
"Congratulations to Kyle," Elliott said. "For him to leave and then to go get the job done like that is pretty cool. He's always been really good to me, so happy for them."
After that teenage trouble, the Las Vegas native has enjoyed plenty of highlights down the I-15 at Fontana. Busch 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 here.
Even the California fans appreciate a driver who typically gets boos after his triumphs: Fontana serenaded him with cheers as he claimed another surfboard trophy.
"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 him. To absolutely nobody's surprise, he roared through the field in response, passing Michael McDowell for the lead with 20 laps to go.
"That's why he's won as many races as he has," said Randall Burnett, Busch's crew chief. "Because he always pushes it to the limit."
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 vague 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.
NASCAR currently has nowhere to race in the area in 2024, and the new track might not even be ready by 2025 - if it happens at all.
A week of unusual 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.
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Updated February 26, 2023