Kyle Larson powers from last to first for Xfinity win at COTA

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 23: Kyle Larson, driver of the #17 Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series Focused Health 250 at Circuit of The Americas on March 23, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

The day started badly for Kyle Larson. After earning the pole ahead of Shane van Gisbergen in a hard-fought qualifying, his team had to replace cracked brake rotors, an unapproved adjustment that sent him to the back of the field for the start of the race, alongside fellow Cup Series driver Ty Gibbs.

But Larson quickly showed the speed that earned him the pole in the first place, and he climbed through the field to finish fifth in Stage 2 and put himself in contention for the final stage. As the field stacked up for double Overtime, Larson chose to pit from fifth before the first restart to get better tires. The decision ultimately paid off, as he powered his way through the field for victory.

It was an emotional win for his Hendrick Motorsports team, since it was the first time the No. 17 car went to victory lane. The car featured team owner Rick Hendrick’s late son Ricky’s Truck Series number and paint scheme. The number has been driven by each of Hendrick’s four Cup Series drivers.

“It feels really special,” Larson explained, because I feel like every time we ran this 17 car, whether it be any of four drivers, we’re all the fastest on the track and then we somehow give it away. Today I was definitely not the fastest, but we were patient.”

After climbing through the field in the first Overtime restart, Larson saw his chance in the second when the No. 21 of Austin Hill moved Shane van Gisbergen out of the way to take the lead. Larson used his fresh rubber to get past and the two disappeared in his mirror as they battled further between themselves.

“I knew the 21 had shoved SVG through [turn] 1, so I knew if he got to him it could get dicey. I was just trying to be patient, I was thinking when to make my move. Thankfully I saw him shoot low… and shove him and I was like, alright, this’ll get good, and thankfully I cleared him off of that corner. Pretty crazy, but just wild there.”

It was Larson who made the fortuitous call to come down pit road after complaining about the excessive wear on his right-front tire. Though he knew he needed new tires, he wasn’t confident at the time that it would work out.

“I thought when we pitted there’d be more people to pit with us, and then when they didn’t, I was like, ‘man, if I can get back to, like, the top ten here it would be okay,’ but it just worked out.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 23: Kyle Larson, driver of the #17 Chevrolet, and Shane Van Gisbergen, driver of the #97 WeatherTech Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Focused Health 250 at Circuit of The Americas on March 23, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Shane van Gisbergen crossed the line second behind Larson, despite leading most of the race ahead of his teammate AJ Allmendinger, after a contact-filled battle with Hill after what he called a “crazy race.”

“That last restart, he just drove through me in [turn] 1, so…yeah. I guess that’s just how it is here, I just stood up for myself,” van Gisbergen said of Hill.

“It was some awesome racing against AJ and Kyle, and then at the end it just turned into a mess. But that’s just how it is. It was really fun, but I just wish I could’ve gotten the lead. Kyle just snuck through there – he was driving really well. But a lot of fun.”

However, in the middle of the battle, he cut the course in the esses, the only section of the track where NASCAR enforces track limits. That normally carries a pass-through penalty, but since the race was over it earned him a 30-second post-race penalty, demoting him down to 27th on the racetrack.

Austin Hill crossed the line third behind van Gisbergen’s No. 97 machine but was therefore promoted to second place.

“I mean, obviously I’m frustrated that we just lost the race,” he said. “We had such a fast racecar all day. I mean, I made a mistake early in the race, cut the racetrack, and had to come back from that.”

He described his initial contact with SVG as hard racing that was followed up with needlessly aggressive retaliation.

“The restart, it seemed like it was somewhat clean,” he argued. “It seemed like the 97 lifted super early – I’m not real sure why he lifted so early – and then he started wheel-hopping once I got in the back of him in [turn] 1 and we cleared him. You know, I’m trying to run as hard as I can but not overdrive the corners and thought I was doing everything right…trying to protect, and ultimately just got run over. It knocked his nose in, so it kind of shows how hard he ran into me.”

Despite Hill failing to get the win, which would have been his first on a road course, he continued his particularly strong start to the season: He’s won twice in five races and has yet to finish outside the top five.

“We’re firing on all cylinders right now, it doesn’t matter where we go,” a confident Hill said. “We ran inside the top five, finished inside the top five in all the races this season, so we’ve got to hold our heads up for that. But really frustrating, was wanting to get this first road course win.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 23: Shane Van Gisbergen, driver of the #97 WeatherTech Chevrolet, and AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Celsius Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Focused Health 250 at Circuit of The Americas on March 23, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

John Hunter Nemechek was moved up to third by SVG’s penalty. He was not expecting a podium result after his day.

“I don’t know how we ended up third. Just perseverance,” Nemechek said. Long day. The driver made too many mistakes. Got caught cutting the esses, sped on pit road, pit penalty I think. I don’t know – just a lot. The driver didn’t execute well but we ended up third. A solid finish.”

Nemechek will be piloting the No. 42 Legacy Motor Club car tomorrow in the Cup Series. He qualified 22nd for that one, so he’ll be hoping to have the speed on Sunday that he did in the Xfinity race.

“It’s some great experience for me for tomorrow. I’m looking forward to running the Cup race here tomorrow afternoon.”

Cole Custer ended up fourth, calling it a “trying day” after battling back from being spun midway through. Even despite the contact, Custer didn’t think his Stewart-Haas Racing team brought enough.

“We wanted the trophy today,” he acknowledged, “but we are going to have to work on it a little bit more to try to get our stuff better. Just gotta keep working at it. This weekend wasn’t what we expected but we will move on to the next one and get it better.”

Parker Kligerman rounded out the top five. He won Stage 1, his second-ever stage win and his first on a road course.

Brandon Jones, who crossed the line first in Stage 2, was penalized for track limits in Stage 2, and so Riley Herbst was awarded the Stage 2 win. Herbst was taken out of the race by a hard wreck in the final stage and is scored 34th.


Photos: NASCAR at COTA Saturday March 23, 2024

Owen Johnson