An Auto Club 400 dominated by tyre issues culminated in a green-white-checkered finish in which Kyle Busch carved his way to a first victory of the Sprint Cup Series season, the fifth different winning in as many races to start the year.
Busch took the final restart in fifth place, the best placed driver in the order to have taken four new tyres in the pits after the final yellow was thrown. Ahead Landon Cassill led the pack to the green flag following a massive gamble – especially given what had gone before – to stay out on worn tyres while Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Paul Menard all opted for two tyres.
Accelerating towards turn one Cassill was predictably swallowed up by a pack that teetered on the edge of six-wide as Kyle surged forward to battle his older brother and Stewart for the lead.
The two tyre option seemed to be paying off as Stewart–Haas Racing teammates Stewart and Kurt passed beneath the white flag side by side in first and second but as the leaders fanned out for turn one both the younger Busch and rookie Kyle Larson – also riding four fresh tyres – slid into the top two spots, Larson almost gracefully slipping across the nose of first the #41 then the #14 to clear himself into second.
Against Kyle in the Joe Gibbs Racing #18 Larson looked to sweep the California weekend, adding a maiden Sprint Cup win to his first such Nationwide Series result the day before. He dived onto the apron into turn three but, unable to gain the crucial overlap washed up the banking, robbing himself of any momentum to threaten Busch on the exit of turn four for the final time.
Matt Kenseth, who had restarted on the outside of Busch in sixth split the SHR teammates to take fourth ahead of Stewart.
Stewart was one of several potential race winners who had to overcome issues during the race. In truth those issues started before the race when Denny Hamlin was ruled out of the race as he was taken to hospital with a sinus infection, Sam Hornish Jr. driving his #11 in the race.
The problems started early. Kevin Harvick was taken out of the top five by a flat left-rear tyres that brought out the first of nine caution flags during the race. His team would repair the damage, only for another flat tyre later in the race do so almost identical damage later in the race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. slapped the wall after a flat left front mid-corner. He too was able to return to the race, eventually finishing 12th. Harvick would log at 36th place finish following his second flat.
Three more caution periods followed in the opening 100 laps. Stewart spun exiting turn two – at the time a blissfully non-tyre related incident, Aric Almirola and Brian Scott tangled after converging on the same patch of asphalt off of four before Parker Kligerman was “dumped” by Casey Mears into the wall on lap 87.
In the second half of the race Carl Edwards would spin out while trying to control a #99 Ford with a flat tyre. Kasey Kahne would pull in to the garage with rear hub failure and Joey Logano, who had driven into contention after starting at the back after a practice crash, would have to do the same for the Penske Racing team to replace the rear gear on the #22.
While many were falling by the wayside the race at the front had come to be dominated by Jimmie Johnson and, having overcome a pit lane speeding penalty, Jeff Gordon. Johnson would get the better of the frequent restarts, though Gordon was better on the longer green flags – the longest of which was only 29 laps.
For that reason there was an element of tension as the Hendrick Motorsports pair raced into the final stages with the number of consecutive green flag laps topped 20.
As they did so it looked as though the dynamic between the twosome had changed. Johnson starting to pull away, Gordon falling two seconds into arrears. However, all the while the spectre of potential tyre issues hung over the race. A late caution, more probable than possible, would begat a restart that would almost certainly decide the race.
Perhaps the three, even four five and eventually six wide racing prevalent on every restart saved the race from becoming tagged as the sort of tyre debacle that Indianapolis Motor Speedway is unfortunately remembered for once giving NASCAR.
The result – to some extent – was decided before the caution flag flew as several drivers suffered flat tyres within only a few minutes of each other.
Johnson, from the lead, was the first. His front-left coming apart through turns one and two. He toured back to the pits. The green flag stayed out. Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose followed him in with matching left-rear punctures.
Still the green flag stayed out.
Gordon was free in the lead. Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer battling over what had become second place. Defending the place Busch took the high line while Bowyer tried low. However, he wiggled up the track before spinning back down, another flat tyre.
This time the yellow flag came out.
With the tyres obviously at a risky point in their lives all bar Cassill pitted. Earlier in the race other drivers had stayed out and tried to hold onto track position. It had worked for neither Keselowski, who stayed out after a mix-up with the lights displayed at pit entry – the #2 team among those who believed the pits closed when the bulk of teams pitted – nor Ryan Newman as both fell back quickly on the restarts.
Cassill would fare worse, despite having only two laps to complete on his old tyres, hitting the wall and having to pit as Stewart, Busch, Busch and Larson took the white flag.