March 22, 2014 — race report by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Race Chaser Online — photo courtesy NASCAR — FONTANA, CA — Cha ching!
We call him “Young Money” for a reason, and Saturday afternoon at Auto Club Speedway, Kyle Larson lived up to his nickname in stunning fashion.
Larson, the 21-year-old racing phenom from Elk Grove, California, held off fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stars Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch in a thrilling duel to the finish over the final eleven laps to score his first career NASCAR Nationwide Series victory in the TreatMyClot.com 300, the fifth race of the NNS season.
The California Kid led a total of 17 laps en route to the win after finishing second five times in his NASCAR Nationwide Series career.
“Wow, what a finish,” a breathless Larson said in Victory Lane as his team gave him a celebratory Gatorade bath. “I’ve dreamed of this moment since I finished second last year at Bristol. It’s unbelievable. It means the world to finally get it here in my home state of California and even more that it came fighting two of the best (Harvick and Busch) that’s ever raced in this series.”
“I was looking at the board over there in (turns) one and two and it said five second-place finishes in the Nationwide Series,” Larson said. “I didn’t want to make that six.”
Larson pulled away slightly when Harvick and Busch began dueling for the second position, but could never shake his pursuers and had to endure a tense handful of laps with the two Sprint Cup Series veterans behind him.
“Those last 11 or 12 laps were the longest laps of my life. I get to see the 54 and the 5 racing hard behind me and they weren’t getting any further back. Just hats off to all these guys on the 42 crew. They’ve been working their butts off all year long. This feels incredible.”
Harvick nipped Busch at the line for second by four one-hundredths of a second at the stripe, but came up 0.342 seconds shy of Larson for the win. Joey Logano, who dominated the race and led 96 of the 150 laps, faded to fourth at the flag and Elliott Sadler completed the top five.
The win by Larson snapped a nine-win streak by Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series at the 2-mile southern California oval. Third place finisher Busch had won six of the last eight Nationwide events at Fontana, and Joey Logano (tw0) and Tony Stewart (one) also added wins for JGR, who had not lost an event at the speedway since September of 2007 in the Nationwide Series until Saturday.
Kyle Busch had to start the afternoon 39th on the grid after not even being able to complete a qualifying lap in his No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota. Busch struggled passing pre-qualifying inspection with issues involving wheel studs and the skew of the vehicle from a rear axle housing issue. However, he did not stay there long.
The race began with Joe Gibbs driver Sadler on the Coors Light Pole, however the OneMain Financial Toyota would never lead a lap on the day, losing the lead to Kevin Harvick on the opening circuit before an early caution at Lap 2 for Jamie Dick’s No. 55 car smacking the wall in Turn 3 slowed the field.
Meanwhile, Rowdy Busch methodically sliced and diced his way through the back of the pack, picking off six cars in the opening corner of the opening lap and working his way inside the top ten by lap eight despite the early yellow.
Busch found his way around Kevin Harvick for second at Lap 22 and set his sights on race leader Joey Logano, who found his way to the front before Lap 10 and put an early stranglehold on the top spot. However, it wouldn’t be until green-flag pit stops cycled through at Lap 42 that Busch would assume the lead after a slow stop by Logano put him nearly four seconds behind the No. 54 Toyota.
That duo would continue to dominate at the front of the field before a caution for debris on the backstretch at Lap 70, just prior to halfway, slowed the field again and shuffled the top couple of contenders once again.
Following that restart, the only notable incident of the day was sparked when rookies Dylan Kwasniewski and Chase Elliott got together coming off Turn 2, with Kwasniewski pushing Elliott up into the wall and the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet coming away with a scraped up right side.
However, if anything, that incident made the Elliott machine even better, as the Dawsonville, Georgia driver restarted 15th and worked his way as high as fourth before the final cycle of green flag stops began at lap 111, when Larson had made his way up to second.
Following that cycle of stops, Logano had stretched the lead to two seconds over Larson, but the young prodigy erased that by Lap 125, and the two duked it out for the top spot until a caution at Lap 130 for fluid on the track set up the scramble to the finish.
On the green flag, Larson snatched the lead away from Harvick off of two as the field fanned out behind him with 15 laps remaining. But it was Busch, the king of Fontana, who began to close, snatching second when the field came back around to the line and hounding Larson for the lead before scraping the outside wall coming off of Turn 4 and falling back before charging again to nip Larson for the lead with five laps left.
But the California Kid was not to be denied on this day. Larson retook the lead coming off of Turn 2 and brought Harvick with him around Busch for second. Busch and Harvick then battled for second until Harvick took the position for good and prepped for one last stand against Larson’s No. 42.
But despite a valiant charge on the bottom lane, Harvick’s TaxSlayer No. 5 Chevrolet just didn’t have enough in the end.
“It was a good race. My guys (crew) did good. We were off a little bit at the beginning of the race and they made some good adjustments at the end and we were able to race for a win,” Harvick said post-race. “You want to win every race. I think we all come here with the intention of winning every race, but you know that’s not going to happen.
“There is a lot of good competition and you try to put yourself in a position to win. You race as hard as you can. I think if we’d gotten our butt kicked today and finished third by a straightaway it probably wouldn’t have been as easy to swallow as it was racing for a win and going back and forth with these two guys and having fun.”
The NASCAR Nationwide Series returns to the track in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway for a Friday night show under the lights. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes to the Auto Club Speedway tomorrow at 3 PM Eastern live on FOX and the Motor Racing Network for the Auto Club 400.