FONTANA, Calif. -- We knew this was coming. We knew the wild card in the Auto Club 400 on Sunday would be tire wear. We didn't know it'd be the star of the show.
Kyle Busch became the fifth different winner in five Sprint Cup Series races this season, but all the buzz after the race surrounded the number of shredded tires behind the pit wall at Auto Club Speedway.
Flat tires chewed up the field from the onset Sunday, just as they had in two practice sessions on Saturday. The race was just 18 laps old when Kevin Harvick had a left-rear tire go down.
It didn't let up, and the worn, wide 2-mile asphalt oval didn't discriminate. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski lost tires on Lap 42. Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose and Clint Bowyer lost tires, too. Keselowski and Ambrose had multiple issues.
But the biggest blowout occurred on the No. 48 Chevrolet driven by six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
The race appeared destined to be an all-California-driver shootout between Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who were running 1-2 and pulling away in an all-out assault after a restart with 28 laps to go in the 400-mile race.
With seven laps left, Johnson -- the career wins leader at Fontana -- had a left-front tire go flat. Gordon inherited the lead, then stretched it to three seconds over Bowyer. But Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota had a left rear go down with two laps remaining, bringing out the caution and ultimately setting up a classic green-white-checkered duel between Busch and hot-shot rookie Kyle Larson.
Busch, who restarted fifth, quickly overtook leader Kurt Busch, who took only two tires to his brother's four on the final stop. Former open-wheeler Larson gained seven positions after one lap, slicing and dicing between traffic to reel in the new leader. But Kyle Busch had enough to score his 29th career victory and second consecutive at Auto Club Speedway.
"I had to move around a little bit," said a grinning Larson, who was riding the momentum from his home-state victory in Saturday's Nationwide Series race. "I spun my tires just a little bit, and Jamie [McMurray] was able to get a run to my inside, so I was stuck in the middle. I think I got to Jeff's [Gordon] outside. Luckily I didn't get tight behind anybody or loose or anything like that. It was pretty hectic for me, but really nothing too scary for me, either."
Johnson, who was chasing his sixth victory in Cali, clearly was disappointed.
"We did everything we could to win the race today," Johnson said. "Unfortunately something out of our control let us down."
Gordon, a three-time winner at Fontana, was downright miffed.
"I don't know where to begin with the disappointment for this Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet team," said the four-time Cup champion, who ended up 13th. "They gave me the most incredible race car today and it is just so disappointing for it to end like that. I hate the caution came out. I hate Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened. They are so good at what they do and that is just uncalled for."
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president for competition, says the issue is not with Goodyear, but the teams trying to push the limits of tire pressure and suspension.
"When you have an issue, and I won't call it a tire issue, I will say that there's an issue of abuse of tires as much as there is anything, so you can't put a blanket over any of these things or any racetrack or anything like that," Pemberton said. "I think the general consensus is this racetrack races fairly well. It's got a great raceable surface, it's wide, a lot of grip, guys like to move around the racetrack. You see good speed. ... This is one of our best surfaces that we run on for the year."
Greg Stucker, director of racing tire sales for Goodyear, told a small group of reporters midrace that a number of teams Sunday were running drastically reduced air pressure in an attempt to gain a grip advantage -- even after experiencing tire issues in practice Saturday.
"Our recommendation is 20 psi left rear, 22 left front and 20 [right side]," Stucker said. "I don't like to share what specifically guys are [using], but they are significantly lower than that. We're not talking about a half a pound or a quarter of a pound. It's more significant than that. And that's what the guys do. I don't want to put the onus anywhere, but that's what they try to do to push every part on the race car. We understand that. But we try to be just as aggressive letting them know, 'Hey, we're definitely concerned.'"
One driver who didn't experience any tire issues was Kyle Busch, who celebrated his second consecutive last-lap victory at Auto Club Speedway.
"We never had any tires issues the whole race," Busch said. "Overall the performance of the tires I felt like were fine. I had no issues with them. I think you just -- it's sort of like playing with fire. If you pour too much gas on it or let too much air out of it, the thing is going to go boom."
And here's the big takeaway for Busch: By winning Sunday, the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota crew became the fifth team to all but lock in a Chase spot.
"It's exciting to win a race this early in the season, although Joe [Gibbs] thinks it's been forever," Busch said. "And to put a winner's circle [decal] on our roof is certainly good because it gives us a little bit of, I wouldn't say relaxation, but it certainly takes the pressure off of winning and making the Chase."