Kyle Busch crossed the finish line more than eight seconds behind Alex Bowman at Auto Club Speedway, and it was a fight to get there.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Busch in his post-race television interview. “Guys did a great job here though just trying to work on it and trying to make everything we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. Interstate Batteries Camry wasn’t a second-place car, but thankfully we got a good finish out of here and tried to get some points.
“Guys are doing all they can, I know, along with everybody at TRD. I appreciate all the hard work; we just have to get a little bit better. We finished the end of last year so strong, I don’t know what we’re missing here.”
A year after dominating the Auto Club 400, Busch didn’t lead a lap Sunday afternoon. Qualifying 17th, Busch fought forward all afternoon, finishing 10th in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2. It was in the final stage, with around 50 laps to go, that Busch began challenging inside the top five and he took second when Ryan Blaney had to pit with three laps to go.
“Slow, we were just slow,” said Busch. “Just didn’t have the speed overall today for some reason. Then, there at the end felt like the tires were worn out at the last bit of the race. Just a frustrating day for us with our Interstate Batteries Camry.”
Last weekend in Las Vegas, Busch was the only Toyota driver to finish inside the top 15, and he wasn’t alone in the battle in Fontana either. Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates faced similar issues trying to get to the front.
Denny Hamlin finished sixth after starting at the rear of the field. Hamlin had qualified 28th, but his team had to make a shock absorber change during the pace laps, sending Hamlin to the back for the start. He failed to score points in Stage 1 and was eighth in Stage 2.
‘We’re still slow,” said Hamlin. “Our cars handled OK. If we don’t have a draft, we’re just run over. It’s tough because I feel like we’re getting beat on throttle time, but we’re also just getting murdered down the straightaways. Just need more horsepower, more downforce, and less drag. If we can have all those, we’ll be better.”
Erik Jones qualified 29th and finished 10th. Jones also failed to place inside the top 10 during Stage 1 and was ninth in Stage 2.
“It was a step in the right direction,” said Jones of his day. “I don’t think any of us really had race-winning speed. I think Kyle got some good track position on that restart and was able to maintain. We got shuffled back, and kind of had to come back from 15th.
“I think we’re off. We didn’t have anything for the 88 (Bowman) or anything like that. We have to get faster, but I think we learned a lot. Just have more to get. Don’t know how to get there, but we have more to get.”
And Martin Truex Jr. finished 14th after also only scoring points in the second stage. Three failed inspections for his Toyota on Saturday meant Truex did not get to qualify and had to come from the back.
Like Busch and Hamlin, when Truex got track position he put up a fight inside the top five. But it all went away during a slow final pit stop when his rear tire changer suffered a severe cramp to his hand and wrist.
Busch had an average running position of 8.7 at Auto Club while Truex’s was 9.3, Hamlin’s 10.4 and Jones had an average running position of 13.1. Truex was the only Gibbs driver to lead any laps — three.