Kyle Busch came into 2023 with something to prove. After 15 years with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, Busch entered a new era of his NASCAR Cup Series career driving the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Meanwhile, Auto Club Speedway faced an uncertain future entering 2023, with talks of NASCAR selling a large part of the track property and reconfiguring the facility into a short track. Auto Club had become a fan-favorite track in recent years, with an older asphalt surface and several different lines for drivers to choose from, which produced great racing and memorable finishes.
Those two storylines intersected at the running of the Pala Casino 400 on February 26, the second race of the 2023 Cup season. It proved to be a history-making race for multiple reasons.
In the early going, it looked as though Ross Chastain would have his time to shine in the Golden State. Chastain piloted his No. 1 Chevrolet to win both stages one and two, leading a race-high 91 of the 200 laps.
Busch, on the other hand, had to fight his way forward. Practice and qualifying both got rained out on an unusually wet and cool weekend for Southern California, relegating him to a 21st-place spot on the starting grid. Busch drove up as high as sixth under the green flag, but then a yellow-flag speeding penalty on lap 43 forced him to restart his march to the front, only he was even further back than before.
After a choppy stage two that featured three cautions for incidents, Busch completed his rally to the front at the start of stage three. Restarting second behind Kevin Harvick, Busch got a strong restart to make the pass for the lead on lap 138.
The race ended with a 55-lap run of green flag racing, including one final pit stop for Busch and Chastain with 34 laps to go. Busch beat Chastain off of pit road and cycled to the lead on lap 180, and he never relinquished it, cruising to the checkered flag with a margin of victory of 2.998 seconds over Chase Elliott.
With the win, Busch set a new Cup record with his 19th consecutive season winning at least one race, breaking a tie with Richard Petty for the all-time streak. Any record set by any driver is noteworthy, but it is particularly impressive when it is a record that belonged to The King.
The victory was significant for Busch in more ways than one. It was also the 61st win of his Cup career, breaking a tie with Harvick for ninth on the all-time series wins list. Furthermore, Busch proved to be a fitting victor of Auto Club’s final race under its old configuration, as the win was his fifth at the 2-mile track, putting him second all time behind Jimmie Johnson, who won there six times.
Lastly, this win ushered in Busch’s reemergence as a championship contender following a rough 2022 season. It justified Busch’s move from JGR to RCR, arguably the biggest Silly Season driver change since Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s shift to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. While Busch’s season fizzled out a bit at the end with a Round of 12 playoff exit, his three wins, 10 top fives and average finish of 15th were all improvements from 2022.
As for Auto Club, the rumors around the track turned into facts. Two days before the race, Sports Business Journal reported NASCAR’s sale of all but 89 acres of the 522-acre track property, leaving room for a potential short track reconfiguration in the future. Demolition of the 2-mile track began last month, officially laying to rest a mainstay on the Cup schedule since its inaugural race in 1997.
Will Busch’s stint with RCR lead to a championship? Will Auto Club resurface under the proposed shorter configuration?
Those are storylines for a different season.
About the author
Andrew Stoddard joined Frontstretch in May of 2022 as an iRacing contributor. He is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Richmond, and VCU. He has a new day job as an athletic communications specialist at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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