FONTANA, Calif. – Heralded NASCAR neophyte Kyle Larson finally had his day in the sun.
When a cloud cover lifted with roughly 50 laps left in Saturday’s TreatMyClot.com 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Auto Club Speedway, Larson’s No. 42 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet came to life.
Larson, who had posted five second-place finishes in 37 previous NNS starts, grabbed the lead after a restart on Lap 135 of 150 and survived an intense battle against Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch to win for the first time in the Nationwide Series, arriving at the finish line 0.342 seconds ahead of Harvick, who edged Busch for second by 0.04 seconds.
Joey Logano, who led 96 laps, came home fourth, followed by Coors Light Pole Award winner Elliott Sadler. Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, Ty Dillon, Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith completed the top 10, leaving Smith and Bayne tied for the series points lead through five races.
“I’m shaking still; this is awesome,” said Larson, who got an ice-water bath in Victory Lane. “I thought maybe we could get away [after the last restart], but the 54 (Busch) and 5 (Harvick) were really good behind us, and I had to race with those guys.
“Man, it was amazing. Those last 11 or 12 laps were the longest laps of my life… It was pretty cool to beat those guys. The 54 and the 22 (Joey Logano) have dominated the series for a while now, and Harvick’s with a good team. It was a blast.”
Larson, Busch and Harvick spent the last 16 laps dicing for position, with Busch actually leading Lap 145 before Larson charged back past him on the outside and stayed out front to the finish. For Harvick and Busch, the quality and intensity of the racing took some of the sting out of finishing second and third.
“The fans won today,” Busch said, summing up the electric atmosphere of the closing laps.
With a rear axle housing that was skewed outside of NASCAR’s tolerances, Busch’s No. 54 Toyota failed to clear inspection before the end of the first round of knockout qualifying and started the race from the rear of the field.
What might have been a daunting challenge to a lesser driver was a mere inconvenience to Busch, who advanced to 25th on the first lap and was 16th by the time he completed the second-green flag lap after an early caution for Jamie Dick’s collision with the Turn 3 wall on Lap 1.
That was the start of Busch’s methodical march through the field. By Lap 8, Busch was 10th. On Lap 14, he passed Brian Scott for the fifth spot. On Lap 22, he grabbed second place from Kevin Harvick.
And when Logano had issues with the right front tire during a green-flag pit stop on Lap 41, Busch had the lead, with a margin of more than three seconds. Just as methodically as Busch had carved his way through the field, however, Logano cut the No. 54 Toyota’s advantage to nothing and retook the lead with a pass on Lap 61.
After pit stops under caution for debris on the backstretch, Busch regained the top spot following a restart on Lap 72, moving past Logano to the inside. Contact in Turn 2 between the Chevrolets of Dylan Kwasniewski and Chase Elliott, which knocked Elliott into the outside wall, slowed the field for the third time and gave Logano a chance to regain the lead, which he did soon after a restart on Lap 78.
Logano took control of the race, despite a charge from Larson, who found warmer, slicker conditions more to his liking after the sun broke through the clouds as the race reached Lap 100 of a scheduled 150.
Following a round of green-flag pit stops, Logano led Larson in second by 4.147 seconds on Lap 116, but the 21-year-old California native immediately began cutting into the deficit, chopping it down to 0.233 seconds by Lap 125.
Larson had the lead by a nose when the cars crossed the stripe on Lap 128, but Logano regained the point a moment later, before NASCAR called the fourth caution when Josh Wise’s Chevrolet dropped fluid on the track.
Pit stops under the yellow scrambled the running order, putting Harvick in the lead for a restart on Lap 135, with Larson, Logano, Busch and Sadler lined up in second through fifth, respectively. Larson rocketed to the lead after taking the green flag and held off repeated challenges from Harvick and Busch to secure his first Nationwide Series victory.