Dirty driving helped Kyle Busch end up in Victory Lane and nobody can say it was his own.
Busch appeared destined to continue a disconcerting streak of losing the past nine races in which he led the most laps when he got an unexpected assist from both a current and former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate.
Joey Logano bolted into the lead with seven of 200 laps remaining in Sunday’s Auto Club 400, but entered the final lap battling side-by-side with Denny Hamlin – the same two drivers who ended last weekend’s race facing off against each other in the garage and then later on Twitter.
Neither gave an inch, and in Turns 3 and 4 that resulted in Busch roaring past them as Logano and Hamlin traded paint, which left Hamlin hurling into the wall and Logano spinning on the track.
Hamlin took a hard hit in an area of the track not covered by energy-absorbing SAFER barriers and was airlifted to Loma Linda University Medical Center due to the heavy post-race traffic.
As of late Sunday, Hamlin was awake and alert but remained at the hospital undergoing further evaluation of his back.
“Unfortunately it got a little dirty there at the end, and it was just running – those guys were running each other really, really hard, especially down the straightaways, just side drafting one another and slowing each other down,” said Busch, who earned his first Sprint Cup win of the season.
“I finally got my momentum going and got a little bit of the tightness that was in the car out of it, and we ran those guys down, and then were to pass them there in (Turns) 3 and 4 before the big wreck ensued.”
That was the end of the race, but not the end of the excitement.
While Logano stood near his car on pit road, an angry Tony Stewart confronted him – an incident that quickly involved the crews of the two drivers. TV replays showed several punches thrown.
NASCAR is reviewing the incident and will announce any penalties this week.
Busch was more interested in his own victory – Toyota’s first at Auto Club Speedway, about a 45-minute drive from Toyota Racing Development headquarters in Costa Mesa.
“We finally had a little bit of luck on our side that we didn’t have all last year and it seemed like we weren’t quite having this year so far,” Busch said. “But we’ve had some good runs and some strong runs – you just got to keep working.
“Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and I talked a lot in the last few weeks about what we can do to try to help each other and put our program on the map where we’re a bigger force to be reckoned with.”
Sunday was a good start.
Stewart was running out front until Busch ran him down to take the lead on Lap 146. Busch remained out front through a round of green-flag pit stops and three cautions that bunched the field.
It wasn’t until Logano passed him for the lead on Lap 194 that Busch seemed to lose some momentum, drifting back to third before the fireworks between Logano and Hamlin unfolded.
NASCAR eventually put out the caution flag, but Busch crossed the finish line taking just the checkered flag, so the field was frozen at the time of the accident.
After a review, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was credited with second, Logano third, Carl Edwards fourth and Kurt Busch fifth.
Earnhardt takes over the series points lead heading into the off weekend for Easter. He leads Brad Keselowski by 12 points.
“This is a really big deal – it’s Joe Gibbs Racing’s first win at California, it’s Toyota’s first win at California,” Rogers said. “You know, but obviously with a heavy heart with Denny.
“Denny is a great teammate, and our thoughts and prayers are with him.”