The NASCAR Cup Series‘ westward journey continued to the Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400 on Sunday. With a dominant showing in the final stage, Alex Bowman scored his second career premier level victory.
Clint Bowyer started on the pole for the fourth time in his Cup career, joined by Jimmie Johnson in his final race at his home track. To honour Johnson, the field conducted five-wide pace laps with the seven-time champion leading the grid. On the opposite end, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. did not set a qualifying time due to failing inspection multiple times, while JTG Daugherty Racing‘s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Preece were sent to the back for illegal body modifications; the two received ten-point penalties and their crew chiefs were ejected.
As the race is in Southern California, various drivers had tributes to the late NBA legend Kobe Bryant. Ryan Blaney, who started sixteenth, ran a special Body Armor paint scheme that featured a snake skin pattern (Bryant’s nickname is the Black Mamba) and number tributes to Bryant and his daughter Gianna; Bryant owned a stake in Body Armor. William Byron‘s #24 car (started twenty-first), sharing the same number that Bryant wore during his career, was coloured purple and gold after the Los Angeles Lakers. Daniel Suárez (thirty-first) wore Bryant-themed gloves.
Despite the threat of rain in addition to heavy winds, the latter of which led to trash sticking to Bowyer’s grille, the pole sitter led early as Johnson battled with Bowman and Busch for second. The Hendrick Motorsports duo of Bowman and Johnson blew by Bowyer on lap eleven to take the lead.
On lap 26, green-flag pit stops began with Stenhouse assuming a similar strategy from the previous week’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway,staying out and briefly leading before pitting. As Bowman retook the lead, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin attempted to draft together but contact sent the former into the wall.
By the end of the stage, Bowman comfortably led to claim ten stage points and a playoff point. Second-placed Ryan Blaney was nearly five seconds back, with Johnson finishing third by almost ten seconds. Also recording stage points were Aric Almirola, Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Matt DiBenedetto, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Busch.
Bowman lost spots on pit road between stages, while Busch missed his pit box entirely. Johnson and Blaney led the field to the start of Stage #2, with the former briefly leading before the latter took over. The two would fight with with Logano and Bowman for the lead during the early laps.
On lap 71, Christopher Bell‘s engine blew up after a jack bolt entered his radiator. Misfortune also struck Bowyer on lap 93 as his left-front tyre went down, resulting in a caution.
Blaney and Bowman comprised the front row for the restart. As the race crossed the halfway point, Johnson attempted a move for first in Blaney’s draft to no avail, forcing him to settle in third.
The #12 of Blaney would lead the remainder of the stage. Bowman and Johnson remained second and third, followed by Keselowski, Truex, Elliott, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, and Kevin Harvick.
Johnson paced the grid to the green flag. Meanwhile, Larson was finally back on the lead lap as he restarted twenty-seventh. Bowman quickly regained the lead as Johnson fell back.
Lap 158 saw the final series of green-flag stops. Truex, who was running as high as second before pitting, saw his victory hopes diminish after his tyre changer suffered a cramped arm.
Bowman reshuffled back to the lead after stops were completed. Behind him, Blaney, and Kyle Busch, Elliott, Johnson, and Kurt Busch battled for fourth.
At the front, Bowman’s lead over Blaney expanded to five seconds. Despite Blaney’s efforts to gain ground, the margin continued to increase until severe tyre wear forced him to pit with three laps to go. With the Busch brothers trailing by over ten seconds, Bowman stormed off to his second career Cup victory.
Bowman remarked in his post-race interview with Fox, “How about that, California?”
Griffin Schmoyer contributed to this report.