Kyle Busch was poised to win his 200th NASCAR series race Sunday when he suddenly appeared to throw it away — by going too fast.
Busch’s No. 18 Toyota was the dominant car in the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, but as he left the pits with 77 laps left, he exceeded the pits’ 55-mph speed limit.
That drew a penalty from NASCAR that dropped him to 18th and, although he charged back to sixth, he was eight seconds behind the leader at Auto Club Speedway.
But Busch drives a green car and, on St. Patrick’s Day, got lucky. A caution period came out with 38 laps left that bunched the field, Busch retook the lead and held on to win by 2.4 seconds over Joey Logano.
“I knew I had a great race car,” said Busch, who drives for the Joe Gibbs Racing team. “Sometimes you’ve got to have a little bit of luck on your side.”
After Busch took the checkered flag, he was handed another flag that said “200 Wins,” which he carried out the window for his celebration lap in front of the grandstands.
Busch, 33, has won 53 races in NASCAR’s top-level Monster Energy Cup Series. He also has 94 victories in the second-tier Xfinity Series and 53 in NASCAR’s Truck Series. He’s the first to accomplish that feat on the three circuits.
It seemed apropos that Busch won his 200th in Fontana because that’s where he won his first Cup race, in 2005, when he drove for Hendrick Motorsports.
NASCAR legend Richard Petty had 200 victories and seven championships in what’s now the equivalent of the Cup series (Busch is 11th on that list) but Petty drove in another era with different cars, tracks, crews and technology.
Regardless, there’s widespread agreement that Busch, known as “Rowdy” for his aggression and tenacity on the track and long a polarizing figure among racing fans, is among the best in NASCAR history.
Busch also won the Cup championship in 2015 after his leg was shattered early in the year in a crash at Daytona, Fla.
“You cannot argue with how good he is,” Jeff Gordon, the four-time Cup champion who’s a Fox Sports analyst, said on Sunday’s telecast.
Busch said that “to win 200, whatever it means, it means a lot to me. It’s certainly a monumental moment for all of us.”
His team owner Gibbs, the Hall of Fame football coach, agreed.
“He was wheeling that thing,” Gibbs said. “It was a great charge from the back. Somehow Kyle was able to get it done.”
This was Busch’s fourth Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway and his second consecutive victory after winning last week in Phoenix. That made Busch the first repeat winner through five Cup races this season.
Behind Logano was his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski in third. Kevin Harvick finished fourth.
Once Busch rejoined the leaders in the late stages, “the 18 blew our doors off and drove away from us,” said Logano, who drives the No. 22 Ford. “Just didn’t have anything for that green car.”
As Busch set the pace, the rest of the field spent much of the race strung out around Auto Club Speedway, which has been typical over the years at the wide, sweeping oval track. But that raised questions about a new rules package that NASCAR implemented for Cup racing this season.
NASCAR tweaked the horsepower and aerodynamic properties of the cars in hopes of fostering closer racing and helping the sport rebound from declines in its attendance and television ratings. But it didn’t appear to make much difference Sunday.
For instance, just past the halfway point and after a long green-flag stretch, the third-place car was 11 seconds behind Busch. The 10th-place car was 22 seconds back.
That drew complaints from many fans on social media.
“All this hype for nothing” … “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” … and “this race is a massive disappointment” were among the comments sampled on Twitter.
Gibbs said the changes are “a work in progress.”
“I do know that NASCAR will keep working on the racing package,” Gibbs said. “We’re trying to get the best racing.”