Fontana, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - Jimmie Johnson's blown tire in the closing laps opened the door for Kyle Busch to win Sunday's Auto Club 400 in a chaotic finish at Auto Club Speedway.
Johnson ran in front for a race-high 104 laps and held comfortable lead when he blew his left-front tire on lap 194, allowing second-place runner and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon to take the lead. Several more drivers experienced tire issues in the following laps, including Clint Bowyer, who spun around and forced a caution to set up a green-white-checkered finish.
During the last caution, the field pitted for new tires except Landon Cassill, who took over the lead for the final restart. Kurt Busch quickly passed Cassill for the top spot while Tony Stewart moved into second after the restart, making it a battle between Stewart-Haas Racing teammates for the win.
But Kyle Busch charged to the front and grabbed the lead from him elder brother, Kurt, on the final lap. Busch crossed the finish line just 0.214 seconds ahead of rookie Kyle Larson, who won his first Nationwide Series race at this track on Saturday.
Kurt Busch, Stewart and Paul Menard took just two new tires, while Kyle Busch grabbed four during the last stop.
"Holy cow, what do you expect when you get a green-white-checkered finish and everybody's got to come down pit road and put four tires on?" Kyle Busch said. "That right there was a 'Days of Thunder' thing."
Busch scored his 29th career victory in the Sprint Cup Series. He won this race here one year ago. Busch also became the fifth different winner in as many Sprint Cup races this season. He joined Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Daytona 500), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix), Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas) and Carl Edwards (Bristol) as those drivers who have all but guaranteed themselves a berth in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
"It's exciting to be able to win a race this early in the season," said Busch, who led just five laps in this event. "This certainly takes the pressure off of winning and making the Chase."
Many drivers encountered tire problems throughout this race as well as in Saturday's final practice session. Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. had to start from the rear of the field in backup cars after wrecking their primary cars due to tire failure in practice.
During the race, Harvick and Keselowski were those drivers who suffered blown tires multiple times.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton addressed the tire issue after the race had concluded, saying, "Over the past few years, we've been on a path to add mechanical grip, give more options to the teams. We've opened up camber rules for grip in both the front and the rear of the car. They have a lot of tools to use if they choose to do so. But the tires weren't wearing. At some parts of the race, the tires were abused a little bit, so I guess that's why the failures."
Johnson, who hails from nearby El Cajon, Calif., was attempting to win at his home track for a record-extending sixth time. The six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion ended up finishing 24th, the last car on the lead lap.
"We did everything we could to win the race today, but unfortunately something out of our control let us down," Johnson said. "I thought we were going to win here at my home track once again and just a bummer it didn't work out."
Larson bounced back from a pit-road speeding penalty on lap 87 and then charged from ninth to second during the final two laps for his career-best finish in Sprint Cup.
"I don't know where everybody went, but I ended up in second there, and I was right up on Kyle down the backstretch," Larson said. "It went through my mind that I might sweep the weekend here."
Kurt Busch finished third, followed by Matt Kenseth, the pole sitter, and Stewart.
"Congratulations to Kyle, my brother," Kurt Busch said "They won the race today with four fresh tires, and it was a nice battle up front. I didn't get a perfect restart, but it wasn't a horrible restart. It's just that everybody starts pushing and shoving, and I didn't get down into turn 1 leading. I got down into turn 1 side by side with Tony, and the two of us raced for the next three miles side by side. If I could have gotten clear, gotten up front, maybe we could have brought the Haas Automation Chevy to victory lane, but we'll take a top-five any day."
Jamie McMurray, Brian Vickers, A.J. Allmendinger, Menard and Edwards completed the top-10. Gordon fell back in the field after the last restart and wound up finishing 13th, one spot behind his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
This race featured a track record 35 lead changes.
Denny Hamlin, who is Kyle Busch's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, did not compete in the race due to a sinus infection that was affecting his vision. Sam Hornish Jr. replaced Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota, driving it to a 17th-place finish.
Shortly before the start of the race, Hamlin was taken to a local hospital for treatment of his sinus infection. Doctors advised him not to compete in the event. He had been dealing with the infection for a while before symptoms worsened on Friday.
"Denny left immediately, right as the race started, went to the hospital, and I think they're still running tests, so I think it'll probably be later on before we get any results," team owner Joe Gibbs said during the post-race winners' press conference.