FONTANA, Calif. — Kyle Busch could relate to Jimmie Johnson’s relief when the red flag came out with 71 laps left at Auto Club Speedway.
While Johnson’s oil leak would have ruined his race if NASCAR hadn’t stopped it due to rain Sunday, Busch wasn’t sure he would have been able to stay in second place much longer.
Busch led for 80 early laps at Fontana, but was passed by eventual winner Tony Stewart when Busch got caught behind Juan Pablo Montoya. He then brushed the wall several laps later while trying to close the gap on Stewart.
“Wish we would have been able to race the whole thing on one hand, but on the other hand, I’m kind of glad we’re not,” said Busch, who earned his second top-10 finish of the season. “We have a little bit of damage that slowed us down there, about 20 laps to go.”
Stewart never surrendered the lead in his second victory of the season.
LOSING GAMBLE: Busch started alongside pole-sitter and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who finished 11th after taking a risk that didn’t pay off.
Hamlin gave up second place when he pitted during the rain caution, and the gamble sent him down nine spots when the race was scrubbed. Hamlin didn’t regret the move, however.
“We’re planning on the race going back green,” Hamlin said. “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 decrease greatly. You either give up a few spots if it finishes up here, or you lose a chance to win in the grand scheme of things.”
KEEP IT OLD-SCHOOL: Don’t expect Auto Club Speedway to get rid of what makes it unique.
While many NASCAR venues have repaved in recent years, the Southern California track relishes every bump in its well-aged asphalt. Speedway President Gillian Zucker thinks the 2-mile oval is fine just the way it is.
“There’s not a driver in this garage that feels it’s time to repave this track,” Zucker said. “The way that this track has come into its own is amazing. ... I don’t think there’s a better place to watch double-wide restarts.”
Fontana played host to two NASCAR races from 2004-10, but NASCAR cited declining attendance when it moved the fall race to Kansas last year.
Zucker is among those who think the circuit erred in taking a race out of the nation’s second-largest media market <0x2014> the largest with a NASCAR race.
Zucker pointed to a healthy crowd at Sunday’s race as a sign auto racing has plenty of fans in the Southland, with improvement in the economy corresponding with the Speedway’s expansive marketing efforts from Bakersfield to San Diego.
“We have to market everywhere, and I think it’s definitely made an impact,” said Zucker, who gets help from Bakersfield’s Kevin Harvick and El Cajon’s Jimmie Johnson in her efforts.
Although a second NASCAR race probably isn’t returning any time soon, IndyCar returns to Fontana in on Sept. 15 after a six-year absence on a track originally built for open-wheel racing.
Count Dale Earnhardt Jr. among the drivers who like the old track, too.
“I think the asphalt will last a few more years,” Earnhardt said.
D’OH: Jeff Gordon added two more head-slapping mistakes to a rough season so far.
Gordon drove away from pit road with the gas can still stuck in his car - and the gasman hanging on to it. He got a stop-and-go penalty for removing equipment from his pit box.
A bit later, his crew committed a tire violation, with a tire actually bouncing down pit road away from the car.
Last week at Bristol, Gordon was off to a good start before Earnhardt’s tailpipe cut his tire, sending him spinning into the wall. At the season-opening Daytona 500, Gordon blew an engine.
Although Gordon had one of the weekend’s fastest cars at Fontana, he ended up in 26th, slipping to 25th in the points standings.
PIT STOPS: Actor Kristy Swanson was the honorary starter, and celebrities were all over the closest NASCAR race to Hollywood. Vince Vaughn attended the drivers’ meeting, while Sean Hayes, Will Sasso and Chris Diamantopoulos showed up dressed in firesuits in character as the Three Stooges. They’re starring in the Farrelly Brothers film coming out next month. ... Josh Wise, from nearby Riverside, Calif., was the highest-finishing rookie at 37th. ... After winning Saturday’s Nationwide race, Joey Logano got a speeding penalty and finished 24th, falling out of the top 10 in the points standings. ... Brad Keselowski, who won at Bristol last week, also got a speeding penalty and finished 18th.