Yesterday, the NASCAR Cup Series returned to the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. After being unable to race there in 2021 due to the pandemic, it was a welcome return among the fanbase. Saturday’s short practice-qualifying session saw the drivers struggle to wheel the car without incident in the Next Gen car’s first venture at an intermediate track. Practice saw a few big crashes involving Ross Chastain in his new Trackhouse Racing #1 Camaro and Kevin Harvick’s #4 Stewart-Haas Racing Mustang. Qualifying was filled with spins and drivers hitting the wall, but rookie and Daytona 500 Champion Austin Cindric captured the pole in his #2 Team Penske Ford.
After a five-wide pace lap salute to the fans, the green flag flew. Erik Jones took the lead in his #43 Petty-GMS Motorsports Chevrolet from pole sitter Cindric. As the drivers were fanning out experimenting with different lines, one driver who seemed to be making up some ground was Tyler Reddick in the #8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Reddick was quick enough to catch the leader, Jones, and eventually passed him on lap ten. Reddick’s leading stint wouldn’t last long though, as the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Camry driven by Kyle Busch spun exiting turn two. This brought out the first caution of the day,
The stage restart saw the #8 once again take the lead. He eventually was caught by the #9 Hendrick Camaro of Chase Elliott, being passed by Elliott after a few laps. Chase Elliott had a lead of about a second and a half over Tyler Reddick and Hendrick teammate William Byron in the #24, but Elliott shockingly hit the wall on the exit of turn four. Thanks to the Next Gen car’s composite body, he had no serious damage and was not being affected aerodynamically, but still lost a lot of speed and time, falling back to sixth and spinning a few laps later, bringing out the second yellow flag. When they returned to racing, hardly eleven laps went by before another car spun, the #77 of Josh Bilicki.
The restart once again saw Jones and Reddick battling for the lead all the way up to the stage end. Reddick ended up beating the #43 for the stage win, with the stage results being Reddick, Jones, Byron, Chase Briscoe in the #14, Kyle Larson in the #5, Alex Bowman in the #48, Joey Logano in the #22, Ryan Blaney in the #12, Austin Cindric in the #2 and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in the #47.
The restart saw Jones and Reddick battle for the lead once again, joined by sophomore driver Chase Briscoe in the #14 and reigning champion Kyle Larson in the #5. As the group scrapped for a few laps, it appeared that Reddick was once again going to take a commanding lead until Briscoe passed him, leading with a slim gap to Reddick behind. Far back, Kyle Busch, already four laps down, had issues once again, as he had blown a tire. Because he didn’t spin, the caution was not displayed, adding even more insult to injury for the #18 and putting him already much further behind. Just a few laps later, Busch’s JGR teammate in the #20 also had issues, spinning off of turn four and bringing out the caution.
The next green flag stint was once again the same few people out front, Reddick, Byron and Larson. With twenty laps to go in stage two, the #17 RFK Ford of Chris Buescher spun entering turn two due to a blown tire. The caution once again came out, but did not shake up the order all too much. At the restart, they didn’t complete one lap before the other RFK car, Brad Keselowski in the #6, spun at the nose of his former teammate Joey Logano, bringing out yet another caution. They restarted again, and after swapping the lead with Erik Jones a few times, Tyler Reddick once again won the stage. The second stage’s results were Reddick, Jones, Logano, Blaney, Larson, Custer, Cindric, Almirola, Byron and Hamlin.
Starting the final stage, Tyler Reddick had a comfortable lead against second place Erik Jones, and as the laps dwindled it seemed that he would be able to hold on and claim his first ever NASCAR Cup Series victory. That unfortunately came to a screeching halt, however, as with 49 laps to go in the race, Tyler Reddick’s left rear tire blew after such a dominating performance from the young driver. It seemed there would be no wreck, and Reddick might be able to salvage a top-fifteen at the least, until the #24 of William Byron sideswiped the #8, ending his race and causing Reddick more trouble as the caution flag waved.
At the restart, the drivers hardly made the first corner, as the #23 23XI Camry of Bubba Wallace tagged the left rear of Brad Keselowski’s #6, sending him into a spin and collecting the #21 of rookie Harrison Burton. The caution flag waved for the tenth time that evening.
The restart was taken by Kyle Larson with pressure from Ryan Blaney. This wouldn’t last long, however, as the eleventh caution flag was brought out by the #1 of Ross Chastain, after a great run from him coming from the rear into the top ten.
The next green flag run was a battle between Joey Logano’s Penske Ford and Kyle Larson’s Hendrick Chevrolet. As the two battled fiercely for the lead, Larson’s teammate Chase Elliott was making his way through the field. He caught the leaders, and had enough of a run to make a pass on the outside lane entering the first corner. It seemed Chase, Joey, and Kyle were setting themselves up for a heck of a battle, until right as the three were about to enter the first turn, Larson threw an extremely late block on his teammate, almost dooring him and putting Elliott into the outside wall. Elliott attempted to salvage his performance by still running, and a few laps later after going a lap down, Chase Elliott’s #9 spun on the entrance of turn four.
Restarting with four laps to go was Kyle Larson on the high side and the #99 Trackhouse Racing Chevy of underdog Daniel Suárez in second, after gaining tons of positions on pit road. Larson predictably took the high lane into turn one, but Suárez dove down to the bottom. The two exited the corner even, aggressively driving down the backstretch. Logano sent his car low into turn three making it three wide for the lead, but the #22 of Logano and the #99 of Suárez both faded on the front stretch. Suddenly, the #99 was getting a huge bump draft from fellow RCR customer Erik Jones in the #43, and with that run he was able to take the lead, clear Larson by turn two, and open a wide gap between the two on the backstretch. Suárez unfortunately drove it too hard into the final corner, causing him to lift to not hit the wall. Larson took advantage of this, and with the #99 aggressively side-drafting down the front stretch, Larson cleared him by the first corner. The white flag was shown as the #31 Chevy of Justin Haley spun in the infield. Larson led the remaining lap comfortably, and eventually, the California Kid Kyle Larson won at Auto Club!
The top-five were winner Kyle Larson in the #5 Chevy, followed by Austin Dillon in the #3 Chevy, then Erik Jones taking the King’s famous #43 to a third place finish, followed by Mexico-born Daniel Suárez piloting his #99 Trackhouse Camaro to a top five, and then Joey Logano hanging on to fifth in his #22 Penske Ford Mustang.
Photo Credit///@TeamHendrick, Twitter.com