FONTANA, Calif. — After weeks of coming oh-so-close to tasting victory on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Kyle Larson shook the monkey off his back and won at his home race track, taking top honors in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
The Elk Grove, California native led 110 of 202 laps in a race that was extended by overtime for the fourth consecutive year, completing his first-career weekend sweep after also notching the victory in Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series Service King 300.
Larson also became the second driver in the race’s 21-year history to win from the pole, following fellow Californian Jimmie Johnson’s performance in 2008.
Though he dominated stage one and took the lead from stage two winner Martin Truex Jr. on the first restart of the final stage, with 73 laps to go, it was four cautions inside the final 21 laps that tested Larson before he was finally able to pull into victory lane.
The race’s seventh and final caution flew coming to three laps to go, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun off turn two, triggering an overtime finish.
Fresher tires, taken under caution with nine laps left after a spin by Corey LaJoie, allowed Larson to get away with a terrific restart and pull away by seven tenths of a second by the time he took the checkered flag.
In victory lane, Larson admitted that the late cautions weighed on him, even as he calmed his mind with the knowledge of the fast race car underneath him.
“I was staying as calm as I could be, but I was also frustrated at the same time,” he 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, but our Target Chevy was amazing all day. We led a lot of laps.”
“Truex was better than us in that second stage by quite a bit, but I got the jump on him on the following restart and led pretty much the rest of the distance. I had to fight him off after those green-flag stops, but it was a lot of fun battling him. This is just amazing. We’ve been so good all year long, with three seconds in a row … and I’ve been watching everyone on TV say, ‘Well, he doesn’t know how to win,’ but we knew how to win today.”
Following Larson across the line was Brad Keselowski, with the Atlanta winner finishing second after a long rally from a spin at lap four, caused by contact with Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.
However, the hard work of his pit crew kept the 2012 Cup champion in the hunt when it counted.
“Great perseverance by the team here with the WURTH Ford Fusion.” Keselowski said. “I wanted to win, but when I got out of the car and looked at the damage and saw that this thing’s torn to pieces … I felt lucky to get second.”
“I’d be curious to see what we could’ve done if we weren’t torn up … but it’s a great day for us to really persevere despite adversity. You’re going to have that in a 36-race season, so it’s a really important characteristic for a team (to have) and I’m proud of them for that.”
Clint Bowyer finished third, followed by Truex, who led the second-most laps on the day at 73. Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano rounded out the top five.
Jamie McMurray, rookie Daniel Suarez, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott were the rest of the top 10.
While Larson rejoiced, it was a tough day for typical Fontana favorites.
2011 race winner Kevin Harvick was pinned a lap down for much of the day before coming back to 13th, while six-time winner Jimmie Johnson struggled with a backup car after a Friday practice crash, going a lap down in the first stage and only finding the lead lap late en route to a 21st-place finish.
Full race results can be viewed on the next page…