News & Media

JGR once again comes up short at Auto Club

March 26, 2012, Bill Kimm,

FONTANA, Calif. -- When actress Kristy Swanson dropped the green on the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, Joe Gibbs Racing had two cars on the front row and its third starting eighth. But when the race was halted for rain 129 laps later, the team once again left Southern California without a Cup victory -- a streak dating to the track's first race in 1997.

"Why it's been this long that JGR hasn't won at all, I have no idea," Busch said after his second-place run.

"Why it's been this long that JGR hasn't won at all, I have no idea."


Early on, it appeared Busch would be the one to end the team's 15-year California drought. He took the lead on the second lap and didn't look back for the first 80 laps of the race. Through two green-flag pit stops, the No. 18 crew was perfect and put its driver back out front.

But winner Tony Stewart was faster on long runs and on Lap 85 was able to catch Busch -- with a little help from Juan Montoya.

"When you're the leader those guys [that are at the tail end of the lead lap] aren't very courteous, they don't give you much room, they actually try to take away your air as much as they can so you can't get by them," Busch said. "I tried going low and then [Montoya] kind of pinched me a little bit. I tried going high and then he kind of drifted up a little bit. He was just mirror driving me and then Stewart was way faster. It wasn't the time of the race to push the issue, [so I] let Stewart go."

It would turn out to be the pass that lost the race for Busch. The No. 18 wouldn't see the lead again and in an effort to keep up with Stewart, Busch found himself brushing the wall.

"[I was] just trying to run back with Stewart's lap times and that's when I was trying too hard, too close to the fence and got myself in a little trouble there, caught the right side a little bit," Busch said.

With damage to his No. 18 Toyota, Busch was happy to see the rain come when it did.

"I wish we would've been able to race the whole thing on one hand but then on the other hand I'm kind of glad we're not because we had a little bit of damage that slowed us down there [with] about 20 laps to go. [I'm] just glad the rains came when they did as heavy as they were and we were able to go home with a second-place finish."

On the flip side is pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, who unlike Busch was eager and ready to get the race started again.

"We [had] a good car. We [had] a top-two or -three car -- had it all day," Hamlin said. We just now got it to where we can run these guys down and get to Tony and then it rains. It's just one of those things."

Aside from during green-flag stops, Hamlin never fell out of the top five. When the caution came out for rain on Lap 123, Hamlin was running second and closing on leader Stewart, but Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb gambled on the weather and decided to pit when Stewart and a majority of the lead-lap cars stayed out. When Hamlin came off of pit road, he dropped to 11th and that would be where he finished.

"Even if it is a small [rain] cell and it gets the track wet, you're out an hour," Hamlin said. "If there's any cell within an hour than you're in big trouble. This is the strategy we made. We were planning on the race going back green. If it doesn't, then we'll lose some spots. If we chose to stay out there, then we were going to have to be behind all the cars that pitted. Then your chances of winning decreases greatly. You either give up a few spots if it finishes, or you lose a chance to win in the grand scheme of things."

Immediately, Hamlin and Grubb were second-guessed by drivers and those watching the race, but Hamlin insists the right decision was made.

"I feel we took the safe move. The risky move was to stay out," Hamlin said. "If it goes back green, Tony is going to have to restart way in the back. It's going to really hurt your chances of winning the race. It looks like we [gave] up about nine positions and finished 11th."

And with that, Joe Gibbs Racing once again heads east to Huntersville, N.C., with nothing to show for what was essentially a strong weekend at Fontana -- running its record to 59 starts, zero victories. Busch gave the team its third second-place finish at Auto Club Speedway -- adding to two Bobby Labonte earned in 2000 and 2003 -- and the team's 13th top-five. But for a team that just won its eighth consecutive Nationwide race at the 2-mile oval, it's somewhat baffling this team has yet to pop the champagne in the Cup Series.

"Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart through the years, '90s and 2000s, would destroy everybody at Michigan, Atlanta, fast places like that, but never had much success here -- whether they finished second or third, I don't know how many times, but never won," Busch said. "I think the biggest thing is how many good teams there are here in the Cup Series. You have a lot of good teams -- Hendrick, Roush, Stewart-Haas, Gibbs, RCR -- we just haven't quite found it yet."