California Dreaming: Kyle Busch holds off Chase Elliott to make history at Fontana

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 26: Kyle Busch, driver of the #8 Lucas Oil Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Cup Series Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway on February 26, 2023 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Kyle Busch will be a force to be reckoned with in 2023 in the NASCAR Cup series. He and Richard Childress Racing made that statement loud and clear Sunday.

In just his third race with RCR, Busch cycled to the lead over Ross Chastain after a final round of green flag pit stops with just over 20 laps to go, took the top spot, and never looked back.

“I think it’s just phenomena,” Busch said. “I can’t thank Richard and Judy enough. I can’t thank Austin for calling me and getting me talking and getting me this opportunity to be able to come over here to RCR and be a part of Chevrolet and be able to race this Lucas Oil Camaro today, to be able to put it up front like that, man.”

Busch won what will most likely the final superspeedway race in Southern California, for at least a while, at Auto Club Speedway for the 61st win of his career, and the first on pavement for him since Pocono in 2021.

Chase Elliott charged late to grab second with Chastain, who led a race high 91 laps third. Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate Daniel Suarez was fourth, with the retiring Kevin Harvick fifth.

Chastain swept both stages for the first time in his career, and for much of the race it appeared to be his race to lose. With fuel strategy playing out in the closing laps, Chastain and Busch pitted on lap 168, a lap later then Joey Logano who had tried to short pit the field.

“He got faster,” Chastain said of Busch.  “I don’t know. Our balance was building loose most of the day, so I thought we did everything right. We kept up with it and it would just build pretty loose late in the runs. At times, it was enough, and at times, they got way better.”

Busch came out ahead of Chastain and that was the difference as Busch was able to stay in front of Chastain as those ahead pitted. Elliott was able to get by Chastain with 21 laps to go, but had nothing for Busch who crossed the line 2.9 seconds ahead for the win.

“We obviously didn’t run very good there toward the end of the year last year, and just everybody really went to work hard over the winter to try and get better,” Elliott said. “Obviously I think we still have some work to do, but it was really nice to just see a lot of that hard work pay off and have the car driving like we were wanting it to do. So that’s always a good thing.

“Congratulations to Kyle. 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 and looking forward to getting to Vegas and hopefully competing for some more wins.  “

With the win, Busch set the all-time record for consecutive seasons with a win,19, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

“The guys did a great job, Randall (crew chief  Burnett), everybody that has worked so hard during the off-season,” Busch said. “We’ve done a lot of sim stuff, we’ve done a lot of testing in general just with trying to get up to speed, systems and all that sort of stuff. But man, there’s nothing more rewarding than being able to go to Victory Lane.”

The race saw a multicar crash on lap 87 on a restart when the field checked up coming to the green and accordion effect crashed cars on both rows. In all, 9 cars were involved including Aric Almirola, Tyler Reddick and polesitter Christopher Bell. Those three cars were forced to the garage in the largest crash in a cup race in the speedway’s history dating back to its opening in 1997.

Denny Hamlin was sixth, Brad Keselowski overcame an early spin to finish seventh; Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon followed in eighth and ninth. Joey Logano, who led 19 laps, saw his short pitting strategy fail, he finished 10th.

The speedway located east of Los Angeles will be off the NASCAR schedule for next season as the facility is downsized and the track is reconfigured to a short track; that work may not be done in time for the following year as well, meaning that only if NASCAR returns to the L.A. Coliseum for next year’s pre-season Clash will they have a presence in the Los Angeles market.

For Busch the win is a validation of sorts. After parting ways with his longtime Joe Gibbs Racing team and moving to rival RCR, it didn’t seem to take long for Busch to get back to his winning ways.

“I never doubted myself, but sometimes you do,” Busch said. “You kind of get down on it, you wonder what’s going on and what’s happening, and you put yourself in a different situation and you’re able to come out here and reward your guys. It’s not about me always winning but it’s about the guys. I’ve been with a lot of great people that have given me a lot of great opportunities in my career, so it’s awesome to be able to reward them.

“I’m going to enjoy it for sure, and hopefully there’s many more left to go.”

Drivers upset after crashing out on a ‘silly Mickey Mouse restart’

NASCAR Cup Series Race Results Pala Casino 400
Auto Club Speedway
Fontana, California
Sunday, February 26, 2023

1. (21) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 200.
2. (33) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 200.
3. (8) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 200.
4. (7) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 200.
5. (10) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 200.
6. (13) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 200.
7. (16) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 200.
8. (4) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 200.
9. (28) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.
10. (3) Joey Logano, Ford, 200.
11. (14) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 200.
12. (2) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Chevrolet, 200.
13. (5) Chris Buescher, Ford, 200.
14. (12) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 200.
15. (24) Harrison Burton, Ford, 200.
16. (23) Ty Gibbs #, Toyota, 200.
17. (25) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 200.
18. (26) Michael McDowell, Ford, 200.
19. (34) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 200.
20. (31) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 200.
21. (29) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 199.
22. (20) Noah Gragson #, Chevrolet, 199.
23. (22) JJ Yeley, Ford, 199.
24. (30) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 199.
25. (32) William Byron, Chevrolet, 198.
26. (9) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 196.
27. (11) Cody Ware, Ford, 195.
28. (19) Austin Cindric, Ford, 194.
29. (15) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 185.
30. (18) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, Engine, 172.
31. (36) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, Engine, 140.
32. (1) Christopher Bell, Toyota, Accident, 88.
33. (27) Ryan Preece, Ford, Accident, 87.
34. (35) Tyler Reddick, Toyota, Accident, 87.
35. (17) Aric Almirola, Ford, Accident, 86.
36. (6) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, Accident, 75.

Average Speed of Race Winner: 127.603 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 8 Mins, 5 Secs. Margin of Victory: 2.998 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 8 for 38 laps.
Lead Changes: 28 among 13 drivers.
Lap Leaders: C. Bell 1;A. Bowman 2-17;R. Chastain 18-27;J. Logano 28-29;R. Blaney 30-42;J. Logano 43;R. Blaney 44-46;R. Chastain 47-67;A. Bowman 68;R. Chastain 69-72;D. Hamlin 73-74;J. Logano 75-76;A. Dillon 77-79;N. Gragson # 80;J. Logano 81-92;D. Hamlin 93-97;R. Chastain 98-132;J. Logano 133;K. Harvick 134-137;K. Busch 138-141;J. Logano 142;K. Busch 143-144;K. Harvick 145;R. Chastain 146-166;C. Elliott 167;D. Hamlin 168-171;B. Keselowski 172-173;M. McDowell 174-179;K. Busch 180-200.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Ross Chastain 5 times for 91 laps; Kyle Busch 3 times for 27 laps; Joey Logano 6 times for 19 laps; Alex Bowman 2 times for 17 laps; Ryan Blaney 2 times for 16 laps; Denny Hamlin 3 times for 11 laps; Michael McDowell 1 time for 6 laps; Kevin Harvick 2 times for 5 laps; Austin Dillon 1 time for 3 laps; Brad Keselowski 1 time for 2 laps; Chase Elliott 1 time for 1 lap; Noah Gragson # 1 time for 1 lap; Christopher Bell 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 1,12,99,48,11,24,22,4,19,9
Stage #2 Top Ten: 1,8,22,4,99,11,9,48,6,7

Greg Engle