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Kyle Busch wins final NASCAR Cup race on two-mile oval at Auto Club Speedway

Kyle Busch celebrates after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
Kyle Busch celebrates in victory lane after winning Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
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As farewells go, it was chilly. And weepy.

The Fontana air had a pronounced bite Sunday for the last NASCAR race on the venerable two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval, less than 24 hours after snow improbably blanketed much of the Inland Empire.

The track wept, and that isn’t an attempt at personification. Trapped rainwater from the last few days seeped from under cracks and seams in the porous, 26-year-old asphalt, forming what drivers call “weepers” — slick, wet spots that can cause a driver to lose control, especially when tire treads become worn.

But the track was drivable, and competitors can read it and weep: Kyle Busch ended a mini slump, winning going away.

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Weather permitting, NASCAR will race on the 2-mile oval at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana for the final time Sunday before the track is shortened to a half-mile.

Feb. 24, 2023

Who could be surprised that Busch took the last Auto Club 400 even though he is coming off a down season in which he won only one Cup Series race? It was his fifth Auto Club victory, including his first Cup Series win in 2005 and his 200th overall win in 2019.

It also was his first win in just his third race with Richard Childress Racing after 15 years with Joe Gibbs Racing.

“That all makes it memorable,” Busch said. “I love California and this speedway has always been great to me. The fans here have been great.”

The win enabled him to reach other milestones. It marked the 19th season in a row that he has won a Cup Series race, one year longer than that of previous record-holder Richard Petty. It also was the 95th Cup Series victory for brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch, breaking the record held by Bobby and Donnie Allison.

Kurt Busch greeted Kyle with a hug in victory lane.

Kyle Busch performs a burnout near the start/finish line after winning at Fontana on Sunday.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
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Kyle Busch celebrates with the checkered flag on the track after winning Sunday.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“It’s neat to have him be there,” Kyle said. “He was emotional, he’s getting soft in his old age. It’s fun to set records always, and when you’re able to do it as a brother tandem, there’s nothing more special for our parents, I’m sure.”

Chase Elliott finished second with a strong final 30 laps and was followed by Ross Chastain and Kevin Harvick.

“The track conditions were fine,” Harvick said. “I didn’t really see weepers and it was just really dirty every run. The second half of the race it cleaned up, but it was hard on the windshields. In the end, they did a great job preparing the track and we were able to put on a good race.”

Crews got to work Sunday at 5:30 a.m. to stem the tears, employing enormous track-drying apparatuses — Air Tundras, Buffalo Turbine Blowers, Jet Dryers and a sweeper truck. They also used hand saws and drills to create troughs in the track where water could drain from outside banks to the apron.

The Cup Series race started on time at 12:30 p.m. in front of a sellout crowd of about 50,000, and the drivers lined up five wide during pace laps before the drop of the green flag, an impressive sight meant to salute the fans that supported the two-mile track since it opened in 1997.

The track was reasonably dry and occasional weepers weren’t the only problem. By Lap 40, the front of cars looked like they’d been sandblasted, and pit crews had to be mindful not to slip on debris that shook out of grills during stops.

A view of the snowy San Bernardino Mountains from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Feb. 26, 2023.
(Steve Henson / Los Angeles Times)
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In his last season as a Cup Series driver, Harvick was making his 750th consecutive start, making him the third driver to reach the milestone. He and Busch were first and second with 62 laps to go after Chastain had led most of the race.

But an aggressive move by Chastain pushed back Harvick for good and Busch for an eyeblink. Busch slipped to seventh but quickly moved back to second, hanging right on Chastain’s tail.

Busch was not to be denied the final victory on an oval beloved by drivers.

“There were a couple moments where I got loose,” he said. “I about busted my ass on that last run. So I was like, please don’t. But fortunately was able to hang on well enough and tried to find another groove that my car would work better in, so it was always a constant evolution of where you needed to be and just trying to work.

“That’s what I enjoy the most about this racetrack. ... 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 else that will help work for your race car. It’s a sad day for me to see this racetrack be in its last race being a two-mile configuration. Glad I was able to win the final run here.”

Although NASCAR could abandon the project until ground is broken, the plan is to reduce the track from two miles to a half-mile and modernize the speedway so that races appeal to a broad demographic, not just hardcore NASCAR fans.

NASCAR confirmed Friday it has sold most of the Auto Club Speedway land to its business partner Hillwood, a Dallas-based company that is helping NASCAR sell properties nationwide. NASCAR will retain 89 of the more than 500 acres and says it will continue with plans to develop the half-mile track.

Early on Sunday caution flags came out nearly as often as they do at a short track. The sixth caution came after several cars spun out into the infield on a restart. The leaders didn’t speed up as fast as expected going into the green flag, squeezing everyone behind them like an accordion. It resulted in the largest wreck ever in an Auto Club Speedway Cup race and sent to the sidelines Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Preece and Aric Almirola.

“I think the leader was just playing games, trying to prevent the runs coming from behind and they stopped in the middle of the restart zone right about where they should have been accelerating,” Almirola said. “Everybody just started stacking up and you can’t stop on a dime.”

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Busch had nothing to do with the wreck and avoided the congestion. Busch’s nickname is “Rowdy,” and many wrongly assume it is a nod to his aggression on the track and rather cocky attitude. He came up with it because Rowdy Burns was his favorite character in “Days of Thunder.”

Coincidentally, actor Michael Rooker, who played legendary driver Rowdy Burns in the movie, gave the command for drivers to start their engines Sunday. Three hours and eight minutes later, one driver was doing a burnout on his victory lap, providing the final memory on an iconic track. The crowd cheered.

“Yeah, man, Rowdy Nation is growing, loud and proud,” Busch said. “Watch out, we’re going to take over.”

Busch asked speedway President Dave Allen for a chunk of the track when it is torn out.

“As special as this place has been to me with five wins here, it would be pretty meaningful, and winning the last one was super meaningful to me,” he said. “It’s not all that glamorous or cool looking. It’s a piece of asphalt. But it’s still a memory.”

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