Call him the California Kid.
At least that’s what FOX Sports NASCAR analyst took to calling Kyle Larson during Sunday’s television broadcast of the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., where Larson capped off a dominating weekend with a victory.
It was Larson’s first Monster Energy Cup Series victory of the season and only the second of his career in NASCAR’s top series. But it was his second overall of the weekend, as he also won Saturday’s XFINITY Series race at the 2-mile track.
In Sunday’s Cup race, Larson started from the pole and ran first or second virtually the entire race, only occasionally slipping back a spot or two during pit cycles that temporarily gave others a chance to lead. He also had to withstand a series of wild restarts over the final 20 laps that repeatedly challenged his patience and his crew chief Chad Johnston’s ability to make the right calls.
“I was staying as calm as I could be, but also frustrated at the same time,” Larson said. “It seems like every time I get to the lead at the end of one of these things, the caution comes out and I’ve got to fight people off on restarts.”
This is just amazing. We have been so good all year long, three seconds in a row. I’ve been watching all the TV like ‘he doesn’t know how to win’, but we knew how to win today, so that was good.”
Larson already came into the day as the Cup Series points leader after finishing second the previous three weeks in a row – at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix. This time, he finished the job.
“This is just amazing. We have been so good all year long, three seconds in a row. I’ve been watching all the TV (with his critics saying) like, ‘He doesn’t know how to win,” Larson said. “But we knew how to win today, so that was good.”
It was mostly a two-man show involving Larson and Martin Truex Jr. all afternoon at ACS.
Larson was the class of Stage 1, winning it rather easily with Truex finishing second.
In Stage 2, the roles were reversed as Truex won going away by 8.5 seconds over Larson, who finished second, and the rest of the field.
“Our Target Chevy was amazing all day. We were able to lead a lot of laps,” said Larson, who led the race-high total of 103 in all. “Truex was better than us that second stage by quite a bit. But we were able to get the jump on him the following restart and led pretty much the rest of the distance.”
The beginning of the race was filled with more excitement than Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick would have liked.
Starting third on the inside of the second row behind Denny Hamlin, Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford ended up getting caught up on the wrong side of a double-car sandwich when Hamlin had trouble getting going.
As Keselowski ran up on the rear of Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Harvick’s No. 4 car ran into the back of the No. 31 of Ryan Newman, which plowed into the back of Keselowski’s. All the cars sustained damage, but it proved to be worst for Keselowski.
Just three laps later, with Keselowski struggling, Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet touched the back of the No. 2 and sent Keselowski spinning off into the infield grass and dirt.
It seemed to be an omen of things to come at the 2-mile track with corner entry speeds approaching 215 miles per hour and the track’s surface featuring some of the worst bumps in NASCAR. But most of the rest of the race was surprisingly clean – until a rash of cautions in the final 20 laps.
First, Gray Gaulding hit the outside wall, setting up a restart where Larson was the leader and Hamlin again was alongside him on the front row, same as at the beginning of the race.
After briefly hanging with Larson, Hamlin fell back. Truex, who had started seventh after a poor pit stop that cost him five spots, ended up touching the rear of Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – sending it spinning hard into the inside wall.
“I’m OK, but I don’t know if I’m as OK as I was last week,” a seemingly out-of-breath Kenseth told his team over the radio, referring to a crash that also took him out a week earlier at Phoenix.
The incident brought out another caution and set up yet another restart with just 11 laps to go. Two laps later, as Larson took off in the lead again and Truex was charging hard, Corey LaJoie spun and brought out still another caution.
The three cars of Hamlin, Truex and McMurray elected to stay out while the rest of the field – including Larson – came to pit road for fresh tires.
Larson came out of the pits in fourth, but was the first car with fresh rubber in the field. He needed little time to get back out front before still another caution came out for a spin by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., setting up a green-white-checkered overtime finish.
This time, Larson feigned a move toward pit road and stayed out.
And on what finally turned out to be the final restart, he sailed away from the field — giving the California Kid a hard-earned victory that seemed inevitable until those final 20 frenetic laps filled with cautions.
“We had a good last restart, got some clean air and came on to the win,” Larson said. “I can’t thank everybody up here (celebrating with him in Victory Lane) enough and everybody at the shop, too. They’ve been working their tails off all off season and it’s carried over into this year. It’s spectacular all the hard work is paying off.”
Keselowski somehow recovered from his rough start to finish second, his car smoking and all but destroyed.
Clint Bowyer finished third for his best finish since coming over to drive the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford this season. Truex hung on for fourth, despite being on the older tires, and Joey Logano came from the 35th starting position to finish fifth.