Kyle Busch’s first win for new team comes as Cup Series ends era in Fontana

AP photo by Jae C. Hong / Kyle Busch competes in Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

FONTANA, Calif. — Kyle Busch still smiles at the memory of getting thrown out of what was then known as California Speedway during his first competitive trip to the two-mile track 22 years ago.

A 16-year-old upstart at the time, he dominated a NASCAR Truck Series practice, only to be told he couldn't run in a race sponsored by Marlboro because he was too young to smoke.

"That was my 'Welcome to NASCAR' moment and my 'Welcome to California Speedway' moment," Busch said.

Anger, conflict and disrespect have always appeared to be Busch's favorite fuels, and the record-setting veteran burned plenty of them in Sunday's Cup Series race while rewarding his new team — and sending this beloved track off in style.

Busch stormed up from the back after an early speeding penalty to earn his first victory in his first season for Richard Childress Racing, winning on this Southern California layout for the fifth and final time in its present state.

The two-time Cup Series champion held off fellow Chevrolet drivers Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports and Ross Chastain of Trackhouse Racing in the circuit's final race on the gloriously weathered asphalt at what's currently known as Auto Club Speedway. It will soon be demolished to make room for a proposed half-mile track, and Busch asked venue officials for a chunk of that asphalt as a souvenir after he burned it up one last time on his way to victory lane.

"That's what I enjoy the most about this race track," Busch said. "It's big. It gets spread out. But man, you can move around and you can spread out and you can make your own destiny by trying to find something that will work for your race car.

"It's a sad day for me to see this race track in its last race being a two-mile configuration. Glad I was able to win the final run here."

This was just the second points race for Busch with RCR, which scooped him up in December after his 15-year tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing ended. The victory was Busch's first since winning the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway last April, and it's his first triumph on a paved surface since the June 2021 race at Pocono Speedway.

With the 61st victory of his Cup Series career, Busch set a record with at least one win for the 19th consecutive season on NASCAR's top circuit, breaking a tie with Richard Petty. Busch said he set his focus on Petty's longevity record "a long, long time ago."

"I'm just so thankful for the opportunity to set that bar, and would love to continue to keep raising it," Busch said.

The victory also was the combined 95th win by Kyle and Kurt Busch — who retired from full-time competition last year — breaking the NASCAR record for brothers previously held by Bobby and Donnie Allison.

Elliott finished 2.998 seconds behind Busch, with Chastain third and followed by Daniel Suárez, his Trackhouse teammate. Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick was fifth in a Ford; it was the Bakersfield native's 750th start in a Cup Series race.

"Congratulations to Kyle," Elliott said. "For him to leave (JGR) and then to go get the job done like that is pretty cool. He's always been really good to me, so happy for them."

After that teenage trouble, the Las Vegas native has enjoyed plenty of highlights down the I-15 in Fontana. Busch got his first Cup Series victory at this Los Angeles-area speedway back in 2005 while driving for Hendrick, and only Jimmie Johnson has more Cup Series victories here, with six.

Even the California fans appreciate a driver who typically gets boos after his triumphs: Fontana fans serenaded him with cheers as he earned another surfboard trophy.

"There's nothing more rewarding than being able to go to victory lane," Busch said. "I death-gripped that wheel throughout the second half of that race, but we got the victory."

Busch was sent to the back early in the race for speeding on pit road, and the penalty infuriated him. To absolutely nobody's surprise, he roared through the field in response, passing Michael McDowell for the lead with 20 laps to go.

"That's why he's won as many races as he has," said Randall Burnett, Busch's crew chief. "Because he always pushes it to the limit."

Although inclement weather Saturday meant that the second-tier Xfinity Series race followed the main event Sunday, the traditional five-wide salute before the Cup Series race carried added poignancy because of the finality. NASCAR is shutting down the track built by Roger Penske with vague plans to build a new track in its place, along with selling off much of the surrounding property.

The decision brings an end to an entertaining era for stock car racing in Southern California's rich car culture. The track is a a well-known favorite of drivers in multiple disciplines, with its coarse grip and wide-open spaces creating impressive racing for a quarter-century. NASCAR currently has nowhere to race in the area in 2024, and the new track might not even be ready by 2025, if it happens at all.

A week of unusual rainstorms and occasional snow finally abated Saturday night, and NASCAR dried the asphalt impressively before the race. Although sand and debris bothered some drivers, the track managed to avoid any major problems from collected rainwater weeping out of cracks in the track.

However, the race did include a major wreck out of a restart shortly before the midpoint involving 10 cars, the most in any collision in a Cup Series race in Fontana. Four drivers — including JGR's Christopher Bell, who had started in pole position — couldn't continue after the contact sent several cars skidding into and across the infield.

Hendrick's Kyle Larson, last year's winner at Auto Club Speedway, was out of contention after developing engine trouble on the opening laps. Shortly after Brad Keselowski spun from contact with Corey LaJoie, Busch was sent to the back.