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Cali: Rain On Our Parade

Joe Gibbs Racing entered Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 with great confidence after a weekend of solid practice sessions and an outstanding qualifying effort that earned all three teams starting positions inside the top ten for today’s race. In fact, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch swept the front row in qualifying.

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The only thing it appeared that JGR couldn’t control this weekend, which also included a Nationwide Series race victory for Joey Logano on Saturday, was the weather. The timing of the rain was not ideal and hampered JGR’s chances for victory when the race was shortened by 71 laps.

Denny Hamlin had proven that his No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota would be the car to beat all weekend long after qualifying on the pole and leading the way during practice. He would lead the opening lap this afternoon before settling in behind his teammate Kyle Busch for the first portion of the race. Hamlin would remain in the top three throughout the day and as the race became official at the 100-lap mark he was running down the leader. Hamlin had closed to under a second behind Stewart, but the rain began to fall at a steady pace between turns three and four and the caution flag came out for the first time at lap 124. When pit road opened crew chief Darian Grubb and the FedEx crew decided to make the trip down for tires and fuel which would have provided a tremendous advantage to the FedEx Express Camry had the race restarted. Unfortunately, what breaks in the weather might have been displayed on radar filled in and the race was red flagged on lap 129 and never restarted. Without the opportunity to restart Hamlin would finish 11th.

Kyle Busch would lead JGR in the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota with a second place finish after starting from that same position. Busch would race his teammate hard on the opening lap and although he crossed the line just behind Hamlin on lap one, he would assume the lead on the next lap and go on to lead the next 66 laps. Busch would lead a race-high 80 laps on the day, but Stewart was able to go around the No. 18 Camry on lap 85 and Hamlin would claim the second spot shortly after the midway point of the race. Busch was holding steady in the third position when the rain began to fall on lap 124 and when Hamlin pitted under the day’s first caution he would move up to second. The race would be red flagged just a couple of laps later and was called on lap 129 with Busch in second.

Joey Logano started the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota in the eighth position and tight conditions early would cause him to fall back in the field. Unfortunately the race had no cautions to allow crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the Dollar General crew the opportunity to make the No. 20 Camry turn better. A speeding penalty entering pit road during a round of green flag pit stops on lap 67 would force a pass through penalty and result in Logano falling a lap off the pace. Although the car showed signs of improving, the rain would come before he had an opportunity to regain the track position and he would finish 24th.

Tony Stewart captured the victory, while Busch was second, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. third, Kevin Harvick fourth and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five. The only caution in the race came for the rain on lap 124 and ultimately led to the race conclusion on lap 129 of the scheduled 200 laps. There were nine lead changes among five different drivers.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns east to the short track confines of Martinsville Speedway. The race will be held next Sunday, April 1 at 1 PM ET. Fox will provide live high-definition coverage of the race starting at Noon ET. Sirius NASCAR radio channel 90 and MRN Radio will also provide live coverage.