The race was Jimmie Johnson’s to lose, and he unknowingly found a way to lose it.
Johnson was sailing toward a record sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup win in Fontana on Sunday when his No. 48 Chevrolet blew a left-front tire with only six laps remaining.
It was the latest in a spree of tire failures that plagued several cars and it brought out a caution flag, setting up a two-lap overtime finish at Auto Club Speedway.
That was the opening Kyle Busch needed, and he drove his No. 18 Toyota into the lead and held off rookie Kyle Larson to win the Auto Club 400 for the second consecutive year.
“There we were, ready for the win,” said Busch, who became the fifth different winner in the first five Cup races this year. “It’s exciting to be able to win a race this early in the season.”
It was the first Cup win of the year for Toyota, whose Cup series engines are built in Costa Mesa.
Busch’s older brother Kurt Busch was third, Kyle Busch teammate Matt Kenseth was fourth and Tony Stewart finished fifth.
Larson, a 21-year-old Californian, won the race Saturday in Fontana in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series.
Johnson, the six-time and reigning Cup champion, settled for 24th after his tire problem.
“We did everything we could to win the race today, unfortunately something out of our control let us down,” said Johnson, who led 104 of the race’s 200 laps.
The race featured a track-record 35 lead changes, nine caution periods and an erratic pace owing to the tire problems.
Among the drivers having tire woes were Carl Edwards (who finished 10th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12th), Brad Keselowski (26th) and Kevin Harvick (36th).
NASCAR and several drivers said the issue wasn’t the quality of the tires made by Goodyear but how some teams were using them.
In a nutshell, those teams were using car setups and air-pressure amounts in the tires in hopes of gaining optimum speed. But the moves also risked punishing the tires at Auto Club Speedway, whose surface has become increasingly rough as it ages.
“If you’re in the garage area you’re paid to be aggressive and you’d want to take everything to the limit,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development.
And with a win in the regular season now almost guaranteeing a berth in NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup title playoff, “we know that winning is going to trump everything this year and I think guys are more aggressive,” Pemberton said.
Kurt Busch said “by no means is this a problem for Goodyear. This is a very abrasive track and it chews up the tires.”
He and others also noted that Kyle Busch and many other drivers in the 43-car field did not suffer tire failures. “We never had any issues during the whole race,” Kyle Busch said.
After Johnson lost the lead, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon took over the front spot and seemed poised for his fourth Cup win at Fontana.
But moments later, Clint Bowyer spun, bringing out the yellow flag that set up the two-lap “green-white-checkered” overtime finish.
Instead of winning, Gordon finished 13th and the four-time Cup champion was not among Goodyear’s defenders.
“It is just so disappointing for it to end like that,” Gordon said, adding that “Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened. When I saw the No. 48 had issues I was just hoping we would make it to the end and I was just going as slow as I possibly could.”