Kyle Busch won in only his second career NASCAR Cup Series points race with Richard Childress Racing, coming at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, Feb. 26 with Chase Elliott close behind in second. Ross Chastain finished third with teammate Daniel Suarez and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick in tow.
The victory marked Busch’s fifth career Cup win at the southern California race track and his first for Chevrolet since 2007.
But What Really Happened?
Sunday was a reminder of why this Auto Club track shouldn’t be reconfigured.
Listen, short tracks are great. However, there is an argument that there are plenty of short tracks in the United States already. We are, after all, already going to one that was at one point literally falling apart for this year’s All-Star Race. Don’t get me wrong; heading back to North Wilkesboro Speedway is really freaking cool.
That said, we need an Auto Club, 2-mile layout going forward. If not here? We need to find it somewhere else.
Now, is Auto Club Speedway considered a “cookie-cutter” style circuit? Absolutely. Regardless, the Next Gen car works perfectly on them.
For the last two races at the California track, we have seen the field fan out wildly on restarts, continuing to play with different lanes regardless of running position after long green flag runs. It has become a driver’s circuit again, thank goodness.
Additionally, while multi-groove racing is fun to watch on its own, the 26-year-old racing surface has also become perfect for race strategy. Similar to what we see at Darlington Raceway today, the Fontana asphalt shreds tires, creating falloff over a long green flag run. That makes for some fun pit strategy.
Every pit stop mattered on Sunday and if it weren’t for that final long green-flag period that saw Busch re-inherit the lead from Michael McDowell, who was waiting for a caution on old tires himself, we likely would have seen some interesting late-race pit gambles.
Racing venues where tires matter more than track position offer crew chiefs a far bigger say in race strategy than they would the other way around. Not to mention, a venue that allows cars to fan out five wide at any given time makes those late-race restarts even more interesting.
Alas, in two years, Auto Club Speedway will simply be another short track on the NASCAR circuit. Keep in mind, fans have been asking for more short tracks. But with how the new car performs on smaller ovals, they couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Is it really too late to reconsider?
Who stood out?
There is little doubt that the spotlight of the day belongs to winner Busch.
After almost an entire year of speculation surrounding what team Rowdy would land on by the beginning of the 2023 season, the new driver of the No. 8 began his year at Richard Childress Racing with near immediate success.
Many wondered if KFB’s return to a Chevrolet team would show improved results quickly, if ever. However, after showing signs of strength in the closing laps of last week’s Daytona 500, the new RCR driver had silenced some critics, but not all. After all, superspeedway races require a lot of luck.
There were no lucky breaks needed for Sunday. Busch climbed his way through the ranks after starting 21st with that RCR power many doubted and led 27 circuits. At the same place where he won his first career Cup race 18 years ago with Chevrolet, Rowdy returned to victory lane.
Busch may not drive for Joe Gibbs Racing anymore, but he proved on Sunday that no matter the car, KFB is still KFB.
Simultaneously, something should be said about the efforts of Chastain. The driver of the No. 1 showed he had the speed to contend for victory during the entirety of this 200-lap event.
The Floridian watermelon farmer not only became the first multi-stage winner in 2023 on Sunday, he also swept both race stages for the first time in his career.
In the end, Chastain still led a race-high 91 laps – that’s almost half the event – and ended his day in third. It wasn’t a win, but much like the aforementioned Busch, Chastain silenced all doubters by showing that last year’s Trackhouse Racing Team success was no fluke.
Who fell flat?
There are a lot of Californians in the Cup Series field, in case you haven’t noticed.
However, one of those Cali-natives seemed to be the favorite among all others entering Sunday’s main event. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the defending race winner to fall well short of expectations.
In all honesty, it’s not fair to put the blame on Kyle Larson in any kind of way. Rather, suffering through electrical problems, it’s his team that is at fault.
It’s rare to see a mechanical malfunction from the engineers of Hendrick Motorsports. Alas, Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet was the first to go behind the wall on Sunday as the 2021 Cup Series champion was already off the pace far before the end of stage one.
After spending 15 laps behind the wall, the driver that many had believed to be the one to beat going into Sunday strolled around the 2-mile track for the rest of the event – unbecoming of what many California fans were likely hoping for.
But hey, at least they still plenty of other statehood drivers to root for in the field. One of them, Harvick, even finished fifth.
Better than last time?
The moment the checkered flag dropped on the 2-mile speedway in 2022, everyone knew that race was going to be hard to beat going into 2023.
The 2022 version of the SoCal event displayed a new precedence for the Next Gen car. The new chassis produced some fun, multi-lane racing that we had come to know, and miss, from the gargantuan-sized Auto Club Speedway.
After the painful previous few years of the last car’s form of momentum racing that gave more power to the car rather than the driver, this Next Gen design gave new life to this track and, more importantly, new life to fans of the circuit.
It meant 2022 was going to be hard to beat this year. But let’s at least look at the stats.
There were 28 lead changes on Sunday among 13 different drivers, certainly the result of green flag pit cycle scenarios taking shape. In 2022, there were 32 lead changes among nine different drivers.
In other words? We had more of the same on Sunday. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
One thing’s for certain, however; it won’t be the same next time around after the planned ACS reconfiguration. Right after we got our much appreciated chaotic five-lane racing back, it’s being taken away from us yet again.
Paint scheme of the race
It’s bright, it’s simple and damn, does it look good.
Busch’s blue Lucas Oil No. 8 Chevrolet doesn’t have anything special about it off the track aside from the oil lubricant’s seemingly endless forms of branding across all motorsports. There’s also nothing really special about its design, either.
However, when you look at it, it just looks good.
Maybe it’s the giant white lettering of the Lucas Oil sponsor adorning all of that extra space left by the forward-placed number. Maybe it’s the subtle red border on both the No. 8 and that white fin placed on the front wheels. Either way, this car, much like Lucas Oil’s branding itself, is obnoxious.
That’s why we like it.
The Cup Series heads off to Sin City.
The NASCAR Cup Series continues its western portion of the schedule as it will visit Las Vegas Motor Speedway next weekend for the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube. Qualifying for the first of two 2023 visits to the city of second chances will be Saturday, March 4 at 2:20 p.m. ET with the 267-lap main event going live on FOX this coming Sunday, March 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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