Busch scrapes into 2nd at Fontana after wall brush

By Greg Beacham

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 25 2012 6:55 p.m. MDT

Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin (11) makes his way across the start-finish line as actress Kristy Swanson waves the green flag at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race, Sunday, March 25, 2012, in Fontana, Calif.

Chris Graythen, Pool, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

FONTANA, Calif. — Kyle Busch could relate to Jimmie Johnson's relief when the red flag came out with 71 laps left at Auto Club Speedway.

While Johnson's oil leak would have ruined his race if NASCAR hadn't stopped it due to rain Sunday, Busch wasn't sure he would have been able to stay in second place much longer.

Busch led for 80 early laps at Fontana, but was passed by eventual winner Tony Stewart when Busch got caught behind Juan Pablo Montoya. He then brushed the wall several laps later while trying to close the gap on Stewart.

"Wish we would have been able to race the whole thing on one hand, but on the other hand, I'm kind of glad we're not," said Busch, who earned his second top-10 finish of the season. "We have a little bit of damage that slowed us down there, about 20 laps to go."

Stewart never surrendered the lead in his second victory of the season. Busch, who led 151 laps at Fontana last year before finishing third, managed his 10th top-10 finish in 15 races here.

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LOSING GAMBLE: Busch started alongside pole-sitter and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who finished 11th after taking a risk that didn't pay off.

Hamlin gave up second place when he pitted during the rain caution, and the gamble sent him down nine spots when the race was scrubbed. Hamlin didn't regret the move, however.

"We're planning on the race going back green," Hamlin said. "If it doesn't, then we'll lose some spots. If we chose to stay out there, then we were going to have to be behind all the cars that pitted. Then your chances of winning decrease greatly. You either give up a few spots if it finishes up here, or you lose a chance to win in the grand scheme of things."

After watching the impressive performance by Hamlin's Toyota in qualifying and both practice sessions, Stewart realized the challenge presented by Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb, who hooked up with Hamlin after getting fired by Stewart last December.

"I feel bad for Denny and Darian, to have a car that strong," said Stewart, who elected to stay on the track during the caution. "It was a hard call. I know it was hard for Steve (Addington, Stewart's new crew chief) and for all the other crew chiefs. We were kind of sitting on the west edge of the (weather) cell. It looked like it was all going to go north. We just caught the edge of it, but you didn't know if it was going to go away or keep building."

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KEEP IT OLD-SCHOOL: Don't expect Auto Club Speedway to get rid of what makes it unique.

While many NASCAR venues have repaved in recent years, the Southern California track relishes every bump in its well-aged asphalt. Speedway President Gillian Zucker thinks the 2-mile oval is fine just the way it is.

"There's not a driver in this garage that feels it's time to repave this track," Zucker said. "The way that this track has come into its own is amazing. ... I don't think there's a better place to watch double-wide restarts."

Fontana hosted two NASCAR races from 2004-10, but NASCAR cited declining attendance when it moved the fall race to Kansas last year. Zucker is among those who think the circuit erred in taking a race out of the nation's second-largest media market — the largest with a NASCAR race.

Zucker pointed to a healthy crowd at Sunday's race as a sign auto racing has plenty of fans in the Southland, with improvement in the economy corresponding with the Speedway's expansive marketing efforts from Bakersfield to San Diego.

"We have to market everywhere, and I think it's definitely made an impact," said Zucker, who gets help from Bakersfield's Kevin Harvick and El Cajon's Jimmie Johnson in her efforts.

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