UPS Game-Changing Moments: Auto Club
March 23, 2014, Staff report, NASCAR.com
TAKE 2 TIRES OR TAKE 4?
The first driver on four fresh tires for a restart on Lap 205 at Auto Club Speedway, Kyle Busch passed Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart on the next-to-last lap, bringing rookie Kyle Larson with him.
Able to keep Larson behind him on the final lap, Busch crossed the finish line .214 seconds ahead of the 21-year-old, who had won the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the two-mile track one day earlier. The victory was Busch's second straight and third overall at Fontana, his first of the season and the 29th of his career.
Kurt Busch, who like Stewart took right-side tires only on the final pit stop on Lap 200, ran third, followed by polesitter Matt Kenseth and Stewart.
JIMMIE JOHNSON BLOWS TIRE LATE
Until the final seven laps, the race had all the makings of a routine victory by Jimmie Johnson, who had a commanding lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon as the event approached the regulation distance of 400 miles.
But Johnson, who led 104 laps, blew a left front tire and drove his car to pit road, handing Gordon the lead. No caution.
Brad Keselowski suffered his third left rear tire failure a lap later but stayed out of harm's way. No caution. The same fate befell Marcos Ambrose on the same lap. No caution.
Finally, when Clint Bowyer's Toyota spun on Lap 198, thanks to a flat left rear tire, NASCAR called the caution that set up the two-lap dash to the finish.
NO GOOD VIBRATIONS FOR GORDON
After sidestepping tire issues and later rallying from an early pit-road speeding penalty and a pit-entrance warning light mixup, Jeff Gordon had a potential fourth career victory at the 2-mile track in sight. On what was shaping up to be the final green-flag run, Gordon was running second to teammate Johnson before his car developed a vibration with 15 laps left in regulation for the 200-lap race.
With tires wearing out 20 to 25 laps into a green-flag stretch, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson read the tea leaves and backed off their pace. When Johnson's No. 48 slowed with a flat left-front tire with six laps left in regulation, it left Gordon in front by a comfortable margin but with a cautious outlook for the home stretch.
The lifespan on tires was beginning to expire on the Southern California pavement as the checkered flag neared. Shortly after Johnson's trouble, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Clint Bowyer developed problems, forcing Bowyer into a spin and bringing out a final caution period to put the race into green-white-checkered overtime.
The final yellow spelled disaster for Gordon. He dropped from the lead to take four fresh tires and emerged from pit road in seventh place behind gambling teams who took two tires or none. Though he was lined up directly behind eventual winner Kyle Busch, who restarted fifth, he found himself pinched on the low side and bogged back in the running order after the frantic scramble for positions in the two-lap shootout and finished 13th.
The NASCAR Wire Service and NASCAR.com's Zack Albert contributed to this report.