Kyle Larson’s winless race streak officially ends at…one as the California kid scores a big victory in his home state at Fontana.
After one of the more memorable qualifying days in recent NASCAR history, the Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway was approached with a sense of tense uncertainty. Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric took pole after no less than nine spins or incidents shuffled the starting lineup and caused a number of favorites to start in the rear.
With concerns of aero stability, tire grip, and all manner of issues from Saturday’s practice and qualifying sessions, teams were granted an extra set of tires along with a competition caution during the first fuel run. With tires available for stints of 16-20 laps depending on cautions, teams could prepare for a Darlington style of race strategy should circumstances dictate.
NASCAR’s hottest driver Austin Cindric led the field to green on a beautiful California Sunday, but Erik Jones took the initial lead and traded it once with Tyler Reddick before the first caution at lap 16. Kyle Busch spun out of turn two and yielded the competition caution for teams to change tires.
The promise of a tire narrative was quickly fulfilled as extensive tire wear was found on the right sides of most cars after the first stint. Talk of splitting the rest of stage 1 into tire wear stops was coming from both the pits and the television booth as Chase Elliott took control of the race, which was soon to be short lived.
Around lap 35 stage 1 became even more eventful. Chase Elliott lost the lead after twice hitting the wall in turn 4, finally spinning and causing a caution potentially after flattening a right side tire. Simultaneously Kyle Busch pulled in with overheating losing multiple laps, an issue that would seem to plague the Toyota powered cars most of the day.
Stage 1 was one of parity as Tyler Reddick regained his control of the field taking the stage win over Erik Jones and William Byron. Reddick, who was complaining of discomfort in his racing seat from his self reported muscle mass gains (seriously) retained his lead into the second stage.
Stage 2 settled down in its first half, and the new generation of cars were able to show some of their potential on the old bumpy Fontana surface. While the top line was preferred, green flag passing was never out of the question. While the best driver/car combos were getting to the front, it doesn’t seem to be a foregone conclusion due to aero clean air advantage. Just before green flag pit stops were being considered, a spin by Christopher Bell (who also spun in practice) brought out the 5th yellow.
Left rear tires seemed to be the preferred failure as Chris Buescher spun into the wall after a flat LR, joining the club of drivers that spun on both Saturday and Sunday. Just after halfway in the race, Tyler Reddick took back the lead from William Byron on pit road. After a spin and near crash by Brad Keselowski, Tyler Reddick led the final run to win stage 2 with Erik Jones and Joey Logano in tow.
The storyline developing in stage 3 was the surprising race long performance of Tyler Reddick and Erik Jones, with both firmly ahead of the pack with around 50 laps to go. Sadly, Reddick’s career day was cut short as a flat left rear compounded by contact from William Byron damaged the 8 car and took Bryon’s 24 out of the running entirely.
With around 35 laps to go the more traditional favorites from the previous generation of car began to rise to the top. Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, and even the previously maligned Chase Elliott held station at the top of the leaderboard into the last quarter of the 400 mile race. After another round of pit stops and a strong green flag run, Kyle Larson extended his lead, potentially running away with the win before an incident with 8 laps to go.
After contact with the wall from a near miss with teammate Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott spun once again setting up another round of pit stops with Larson ahead of Suarez, Logano, Austin Dillon, and Erik Jones each taking the requisite 4 new tires. Controversy for the week will surely come from the contact with Larson, and the somewhat unusual spin by Chase Elliott forcing a late caution.
Despite an impressive push from Daniel Suarez, Kyle Larson effectively side drafted and took back the lead to cruise to a win over last lap charging Austin Dillion to pick up where the 2021 champion left off scoring the win at Auto Club Speedway.
Unofficial top 5:
- Kyle Larson
- Austin Dillon
- Erik Jones
- Daniel Suarez
- Joey Logano
The NASCAR Cup Series moves to Las Vegas for next week’s Pennzoil 400 on Sunday March 6th starting at 3pm on Fox.
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