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Tyre issues had been a concern among many of the teams heading into this weekend's race at the abrasive and bumpy two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. However no one had foreseen quite what a dramatic effect it would prove to have on many of the top names - including Jimmie Johnson, who met with his own disaster six laps from the end and paved the way for Kyle Busch to win a five-way green-white-chequered shootout after just managing to hold off a scintillating final surge from Kyle Larson.
"I went into turn 1 thinking I'd run the middle, Tony [Stewart] started sliding off the bottom, so I cut my car to the left, drove underneath him and was able to keep Kyle Larson behind me," Busch said afterwards in Victory Lane. "What an awesome race this track produced two days in a row. I can't believe it. Thank the Lord for getting us locked in the Chase."
It had been Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Matt Kenseth who started the race from pole position but Brad Keselowski had immediately taken the lead in the #2 Team Penske Ford on the first lap and held it ahead of Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. Harvick's strong early pace soon ended with a blown left rear tyre, an early sign of things to come that sent the #4 to pit road for repairs under the first caution of the day on lap 18. It was bad news for Gordon too, after he was handed a speeding penalty that put him to the back for the restart on lap 24, during which Keselowski retained the lead ahead of Kyle Busch was who had been vaulted into second spot by an impressive pit lane performance by the #18 crew
Keselowski retained the lead until the second caution 18 laps later triggered by a left front tyre blowing on the #88 and pancaking Dale Earnhardt into the wall. Gordon had worked his way back from 40th to 11th place during this time after his speeding penalty, while Johnson was soon promoted to the front by the next round of pit stops for the restart on lap 46 after Keselowski dropped back to sixth with a slow pit stop over tyre worries of his own. There were 11 green flag laps before the next caution triggered by Tony Stewart spinning out on the backstretch without making contact, and Johnson continued to lead at the restart after pitting. Keselowski was among a number of drivers caught out by a miscommunication over whether the pit lane was open - the LED lights were still red but the track official was waving a green flag. Keselowski trusted the lights and assumed that the pits were still closed while Johnson and others correctly prioritised the green flag and came in. That misread left Keselowski, Gordon and Bowyer running on old tyres and falling rapidly down the running order as a result, but fortunately for them the yellow was back out on lap 69 after Aric Almirola was tagged from behind by Brian Scott in turn 4 which sent the #43 spinning out of the race.
"It's pretty obvious what happened - the #33 was obviously a dart without feathers and coming across the race track," fumed Almirola, putting the blame for the incident on Scott. "He ran right into me ... Man, he came from all the way at the bottom of the race track and ran into me. He's not even racing this series for points. He's out there having fun because his daddy gets to pay for it and he wrecked us. That's frustrating."
Johnson had just taken the lead back from Kenseth by lap 85 when Parker Kilgerman hit the wall in turn 3. Once the race went green again it passed the halfway point with Johnson still out in front of Jeff Gordon, but soon afterwards their fellow Hendrick Motorsport driver Kasey Kahne was forced to head to the garage with a right rear mechanical issue on the #5; Penske's Joey Logano followed suit with issues of his own on lap 115. However it was tyre problems that were becoming the real concern at this stage, with Justin Allgaier, Dale Earnhardt and Greg Biffle all forced into unscheduled pit stops with flat tyres and then Biffle's Roush Fenway Racing team mate Carl Edwards spinning out in turn 2 on lap 117 to bring out the sixth caution. Overall, several teams were now growing so concerned about tyre wear, flats and blowouts that crew chiefs were in discussion with NASCAR about securing an extra set of Goodyears to allow them to see out the race, having already used up to seven of their originally allotted 11 sets, but NASCAR said no.
The next stint saw more tyre issues - this time for SHR team mates Harvick and Danica Patrick - and also debris blocking the front grilles of Johnson, Biffle and Paul Menard's cars sending water and engine temperatures soaring. Finally a debris caution on lap 141 gave everyone relief and a chance for another pit stop under yellow, with Johnson winning the race off pit road ahead of Kenseth and remaining in front until the next caution on lap 167 for David Gilliland hitting the wall. Johnson was still in the lead ahead of Gordon at the restart with 27 laps to go, with Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer in front of Brad Keselowski who had worked his way back into contention in fifth ahead of Kenseth. As the end neared it looked as though the Hendrick pair had the race in the bag, and when Gordon reported a suspected vibration on the #24 it meant that Johnson could ease off a little knowing that his place in the 2014 Chase was about to be confirmed.
That is, until lap 194 when suddenly it was the #48 with a left-front flat tyre that forced him to dive onto pit road, all hopes of a victory swept away in an instant. He wasn't alone: a minute later and Keselowski was also on pit road with a flat left rear followed by Marcos Ambrose, and then finally Clint Bowyer was sent spinning by a tyre issue of his own on the #15 on lap 198 and NASCAR was at last forced to throw a caution, sending the race to a green-white-chequered showdown. The cascade of incidents had thrown the race into chaos: Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Paul Menard gambled on taking only two new tyres each in the pit stops despite the spate of tyre issues meaning that they restarted at the front, while Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth were the top contenders on a full set of fresh tyres for the occasion. The green came out and it was wide-open with five-wide racing as the field went into turn 1 for the final time: when the storm broke it was Kyle Busch who leapt to the front ahead of his older brother Kurt and team mate Matt Kenseth, but there was one final surprise that no one saw coming: Saturday's Nationwide Series race winner Kyle Larson, restarting from ninth place, blasted his way through and into second place just two tenths of a second behind the winner.
It was a stunning result for the Chip Ganassi Racing rookie, by far the Californian local hero's best finish in his scant nine Cup starts to date. In fact it all but eclipsed the achievement of the race winner Kyle Busch, who with his 29th victory in 334 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts (and his third win in 12 races at Fontana) had virtually guaranteed his place in the 2014 Chase under the new competition format. By comparison Jimmie Johnson ended up in 24th place at the line, his own hopes of sealing a Chase place dashed despite having led for 104 of the 207 laps.
In the Sprint Cup standings, Carl Edwards now leads the points standings by one point over Dale Earnhardt Jr. after finishing in tenth place on Sunday. Edwards and Earnhardt, along with Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, are the other drivers to have effectively booked an early place in the Chase by winning a race in 2014 so far.
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