Kyle Busch has been looking rejuvenated in 2013, following a lacklustre season last year that fell well below his own high standards. But despite having already found success multiple times in the Nationwide Series so far this season, a win in the Cup championship was still proving hard to come by despite three top four finishes in the first four races of this year's campaign.
In the final minutes of Sunday's race, Fontana seemed as though it would be the same 'close, but no cigar' affair all over again. After running for a grand total of 125 of the 200 laps in the lead, it looked as though Busch would be watching someone else snatch the glory at the end as his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin and Penske Racing's Joey Logano slugged it out for the race win through the final corner. But that wasn't to be the way the race went in the end after all.
Busch had started the Sunday afternoon Auto Club 400 from fourth place, although that effectively became second after Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski had both made their way to the back of the field before the green flag as a consequence of blowing up their engines in Friday practice. That left the top three an all-JGR affair, with Hamlin on pole and the team's newest recruit Matt Kenseth a de facto third place, followed by Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Tony Stewart.
All three JGR cars had a spell in front before the first caution on lap 30 for David Stremme spinning in turn 2. Busch picked up the lead for the restart but there was a rapid return to yellow for oil on track from Timmy Hill's car, and at the next restart Logano made a dive to the inside line and succeeded in claiming the top spot for himself.
He held the position through to the first green flag pit stops of the day on lap 68; the JGR crew did the better job and got Busch back out on front. It was a less happy cycle for Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick and for Kyle's brother Kurt in the #78 Furniture Row Racing car, both of whom were cited for speeding on pit lane. A more orderly round of pit stops followed under a debris caution on lap 91 shortly after Jeff Gordon had bounced his Hendrick Motorsports #24 off the wall, and while Hamlin won the race off pit road that time it was his team mate Busch who quickly reasserted control once racing was back under way.
As the race passed the halfway point, Busch was the one putting in all the fastest laps and pulling out a gap of more than a second over Hamlin and the others. However, after another round of pit stops on lap 119 under a caution for Joe Nemechek hitting the wall in turn 2, it was Logano who won the restart tussle to lead through to the next caution on lap 130 which came thanks to Richard Petty Motorsports' Marcos Ambrose shedding debris from a blown tyre.
There was another round of pit stops, but now with under 70 laps remaining in the race it was all getting very strategic: Tony Stewart, David Ragan, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth all went for two-tyres only in their stops and duly led at the restart on lap 135, with Busch having dropped back to tenth place as the team had needed to switch to a backup battery for the #18.
Not that these setbacks proved much of a problem for Busch, who immediately hunted down those running on older rubber: 12 laps was all it took before he passed Stewart and resumed the lead again, pulling Harvick and Logano through in his wake although the latter was currently fretting about sky-rocketing temperatures in the #22.
The running order at the front stayed the same through a final round of green flag pit stops and a debris caution on lap 170 (courtesy of a second tyre blown on Ambrose's car) and after the restart there was a rapid return to yellow courtesy of a rare mishap for the veteran racer Mark Martin, who spun the #55 on the backstretch on lap 175. That brief spell of green had nonetheless mixed things up, and while Busch was still in the lead it was now Hendrick's Kasey Kahne alongside the #18 for the green flag with Tony Stewart and Joey Logano behind them.