It was chilly at the farewell. And tearful.
The Fontana sky last had a pronounced bite on Sunday NASCAR race on the venerable two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval less than 24 hours after snow improbably blanketed much of the Inland Empire.
The song cried, and that’s not an attempt at personification. Trapped rainwater from the past few days seeped out from under cracks and seams in the porous, 26-year-old asphalt, forming what motorists call “weepers” — slippery, wet patches that can cause a driver to lose control, especially when the tread of the tires worn out.
But the track was rideable and competitors can read it and cry: Kyle Bush ended a mini slump and won by going away.
Who would be surprised that Busch took the last Auto Club 400, even though he’s coming off a lesser season where he only won one Cup Series race? It was his fifth Auto Club win, including his first Cup Series win in 2005 and his 200th overall win in 2019.
It was also his first win in just his third race with Richard Childress Racing after 15 years with Joe Gibbs Racing.
“That’s what makes it all memorable,” Busch said. “I love California and this speedway has always served me well. The fans here have been amazing.”
The win allowed him to achieve other milestones. It was his 19th straight season winning a Cup Series race, one year longer than former record holder Richard Petty. It was also the 95th Cup Series victory for brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch, breaking the record held by Bobby and Donnie Allison.
Kurt Busch greeted Kyle in victory lane with a hug.
“It’s nice to have him here,” Kyle said. “He was emotional, he’s going limp in his old age. It’s always fun to set records, and if you can do it as a brother tandem, there’s nothing special for our parents, I’m sure.
Pursue Elliott finished second with a strong last 30 laps and was followed by Ross Chatain And Kevin Harvik.
“The track conditions were fine,” said Harvick. “I didn’t really see any criers and it was just really gross every run. The second half of the race cleared up, but it was tough on the windshields. In the end they did a great job preparing the track and we were able to put in a good race.”
Crews went to work at 5:30 a.m. Sunday to staunch the tears, using huge track drying equipment – Air Tundras, Buffalo Turbine Blowers, Jet Dryers and a sweeper truck. They also used handsaws and drills to make troughs in the track for water to drain from beyond the banks to the platform.
The Cup Series race started on time at 12:30 p.m. in front of a sold-out crowd of about 50,000, and the drivers lined up five wide on fast laps before the green flag fell, an impressive sight meant to greet the fans who supported the two mile-long track since opening in 1997.
The track was fairly dry and occasional howls weren’t the only problem. By lap 40, the fronts of cars looked like they had been sandblasted, and pit crews had to be careful not to slip on debris that shook from grates during stops.
In his final season as a Cup Series driver, Harvick made his 750th consecutive start, making him the third driver to reach the milestone. He and Busch – tied among active drivers with a record 60 Cup Series wins – placed first and second with 62 laps to go after Chastain led for most of the race.
But an aggressive move from Chastain pushed Harvick back for good and Busch for an instant. Busch slid back to seventh, but quickly moved back to second, hanging right on Chastain’s tail.
Busch could not be denied the overall victory on an oval loved by drivers.
“There were a few moments where I got loose,” he said. “I almost broke myself on that last run. So I was like, please don’t. But luckily was able to hang on well enough and try to find another groove where my car would work better, so it was always a constant evolution of where you had to be and just try to work.
“That’s what I like most about this track… It’s big, it’s spread out, but man you can move around and you can spread out and you can control your own destiny by trying to find something else that helps . work for your race car. It’s a sad day for me to see this track in its last race, a two-mile configuration. Glad I was able to win the last run here.”
While NASCAR could put the project on hold until ground is broken, the plan is to cut the track from two miles to half a mile and modernize the speedway so races appeal to a broad demographic, not just hardcore NASCAR fans.
NASCAR confirmed Friday that it has sold most of the Auto Club Speedway land to its business partner Hillwood, a Dallas-based company that helps NASCAR sell properties nationwide. NASCAR will retain 89 of the more than 500 acres and say it will continue with plans to develop the half-mile track.
Early on Sunday, caution flags were raised almost as often as on a short course. The sixth caution came after several cars spun into the infield on a restart. The leaders did not speed up as quickly as expected entering the green flag and squeezed everyone behind them like an accordion. It resulted in the largest wreck ever in an Auto Club Speedway Cup race, sending Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Preece, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger to the sidelines.
“I think the leader was just playing games and trying to keep the runs from coming from behind and they stopped in the middle of the restart zone right where they should have accelerated,” said Almirola. “Everyone just started stacking and you can’t stop on a dime.”
Busch had nothing to do with the wreckage, but he avoided the congestion. Busch’s nickname is ‘Rowdy’ and many mistakenly assume it is a nod to his aggression on the track and his rather stubborn demeanor. He came up with it because Rowdy Burns was his favorite character in ‘Days of Thunder’.
Coincidentally, actor Michael Rooker, who played legendary driver Rowdy Burns in the film, ordered the drivers to start their engines on Sunday. About 3½ hours later, a driver suffered a burnout on his victory lap, forming the last memory on an iconic track. The crowd cheered.
“Yeah, man, Rowdy Nation is growing, loud and proud,” Busch said. “Watch out, we’re going to take over.”
Busch asked speedway president Dave Allen for a piece of the track when it is torn out.
“As special as this place has been for me with five wins here, it would be pretty meaningful, and winning the last one was super meaningful to me,” he said. “It doesn’t look all that glamorous or cool. It’s a piece of asphalt. But it remains a memory.”