NASCAR Cup: 5 takeaways from the Pala Casino 400 at Fontana

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 26: Kyle Busch, driver of the #8 Lucas Oil Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway on February 26, 2023 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

At NASCAR’s last race on Fontana’s current configuration, Kyle Busch wins his first race for Richard Childress Racing at the Pala Casino 400.

When Kyle Busch moved to Richard Childress Racing this offseason, many thought it would take him a long time to win a race. Several also believed that considering his downtrend in performance in recent years, Busch’s best days were long behind him.

But he silenced some of those doubters by finishing third at the Busch Light Clash and was competitive at the Daytona 500. It is safe to say his haters are now fully quieted after winning the Pala Casino 400 at Fontana on Sunday.

He was in the top three all race long and passed Ross Chastain for the lead with about 40 laps to go. Busch then held off a hard-charging Chase Elliott to claim the crown in NASCAR’s final race at Fontana’s two-mile configuration.

1. Kyle Busch holds off Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain, wins first race with RCR

Considering the speed the #8 car had last year with Tyler Reddick and the talent Kyle Busch possesses, it should have been viewed as a match made in heaven when Busch signed on to drive for RCR in 2023. However, there was still plenty of skepticism on if Busch would find any form of success behind the wheel of the #8.

After just three races, it now appears that this may only be the beginning of a storied career at RCR for Busch. Following up impressive runs at the Busch Light Clash and Daytona 500, Busch won the Pala Casino 400 at Fontana.

Ross Chastain had the fastest car most of the day and Chase Elliott had the fastest car near the end of the race, but Busch had an equally fast Chevy all day long. He quickly overcame a pit road speeding penalty in Stage 1 to be firmly inside the top three for the entirety of the second half of the race.

Although Chastain was able to aggressively block Busch a number of times, the #8 finally got around the #1 with about 40 laps to go. He quickly grew a 3.5-second lead that he maintained for the remainder of the event. Once he got past Chastain for second, Elliott slowly chewed into Busch’s advantage. Fortunately, Busch grew enough of a buffer that he was able to easily cruise to victory.

Record win for Busch

In addition to being his first win with RCR, it is the 61st of Busch’s career and gives him a win in a NASCAR record 19 consecutive seasons. This broke a tie Busch had with Richard Petty of 18 consecutive seasons with at least one victory.

Perhaps just as impressive as him breaking the record is the amount of cheers Busch received after claiming the checkered flag. He was usually showered with a rain of boos during his time at Joe Gibbs Racing. However, whether it is because of the new team or the fact Busch is now an underdog after being ousted from JGR, it seems fans are beginning to improve their opinion of Busch.

Fontana is also the site of Busch’s first career victory in 2005 with Hendrick Motorsports. It is poetic that he kicks off this new era of his career with a win at the same track.

Busch has consistently been one of the fastest cars in the garage to start the season. He has now put the sport on notice that he has returned to his championship-contending ways.

2. Ross Chastain comes up short once again

Despite leading a race-high 92 of the 200 laps ran, Ross Chastain faded late to finish third behind Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott.

Chastain dominated the majority of Stage 1 and 2, claiming victory in both stages. He had to aggressively battle with Joey Logano and Busch to maintain his position, but the #1 still appeared to be the car to beat as the race neared its climax.

Unfortunately for Chastain, Busch had a faster car when it mattered most. Just before the final pit stops, Busch found a way around the #1. Chastain did everything he could to stay out front, but Busch was too much to handle.

A few laps later, Elliott made quick work of Chastain as well. This led to a respectable yet disappointing third-place finish for Chastain.

What does Fontana mean for Chastain moving forward?

With the success he had last year, it is easy to forget that Chastain has now not won since last April at Talladega. His consistency carried him to the Championship 4 a season ago, but Fontana adds to the trend of Chastain not being able to finish off races. Although he consistently has one of the fastest cars on the track, Chastain just cannot seem to find a way back to victory lane.

On the bright side, Chastain and Trackhouse seem to be just as fast in 2023 as they were in 2022. Several doubted the team could keep up their momentum, but both of their cars have finished in the top ten in the first two races of the year. Chastain finished ninth last week before his third-place run on Sunday. Trackhouse teammate Daniel Suarez was seventh at Daytona and fourth at Fontana.

The speed clearly is there for Chastain to have an equally successful 2023. However, he will need to find a way to finish off races if he wants to once again contend for the title.

3. The Big One strikes at Fontana

The Big One is usually reserved for Daytona, but a massive wreck struck again this week at Fontana. The 10-car pile-up was the largest accident in the history of Fontana. Several notable drivers were involved, including Brad Keselowski, Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell, and Tyler Reddick.

After two quick cautions for single-car spins by Corey LaJoie and A.J. Allmendinger, the field took the green on another restart near the midway point of Stage 2. Joey Logano, who was the control car, slowed down to get a draft from Ross Chastain. This stacked up the entire high lane and led to multiple cars spinning out of control.

The race ended the day for Bell, who was the pole-sitter and considered a favorite for the win. Almirola and Reddick also retired from the event due to damage from the crash.

It was even more catastrophic for Blaney. The driver of the #12, who has not won a points-paying race since 2021, was out front for most of Stage 1 and appeared to be one of the cars to beat. However, the wreck pushed him out of contention and led to him finishing 26th.

4. RFK & RCR continue to impress

RFK Racing built upon their speed at Daytona with a very respectable showing at Fontana. Brad Keselowski overcame multiple spins to finish seventh and Chris Buescher ended the race in 13th.

In addition to winning the race with Kyle Busch, fellow RCR driver Austin Dillon finished ninth. This comes after the duo finished inside the top three at the Clash and were three laps away from winning the Daytona 500.

Other notable drivers off to strong starts include Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Corey LaJoie. Following his win last week, Stenhouse Jr. proved it was not a fluke by staying in the top fifteen all race long at Fontana to finish 12th. Driving for underfunded Spire Motorsports, LaJoie has had perhaps the best two-week stretch of his career. He finished 16th at Daytona and an impressive 14th at Fontana.

5. Time to panic for 23XI, Hendrick?

23XI Racing has easily been the most disappointing team to start the year. Big offseason acquisition Tyler Reddick has been involved in major wrecks in both races so far this year. This resulted in finishes of 39th at Daytona and 34th at Fontana. Meanwhile, Bubba Wallace has had speed but has failed to get the results. He finished 20th last week after getting involved in one of the Big Ones. At Fontana, the #23 again had top-ten speed, yet an engine issue led to him finishing 30th. 23XI expected to have both of their cars in the Playoffs, but right now they will be lucky to just get one.

Hendrick teammates Kyle Larson and William Byron have also gotten off to slow starts. Wrecks at Daytona led to less-than-stellar finishes for both. Then, at Fontana, engine issues for Larson and tire issues for Byron resulted in another disappointing finish. Larson ended up 29th, while Byron finished 25th. It is too early to panic considering both drive for Hendrick. Still, both teams will want to turn things around sooner rather than later.

Featured Image Credit: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images


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