FONTANA, Calif. – What better place for Kyle Larson to score his first NASCAR Nationwide Series victory than back home in California?
Larson, who began his racing career on dirt tracks in California, survived an intense battle with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veterans Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps of Saturday’s TreatMyClot.com 300 to earn his first NASCAR Nationwide Series victory.
“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.”
The 21-year-old driver from Elk Grove, Calif., ran in the top 10 most of the day but wasn’t a factor until the final 50 laps of the race. Larson began to make his move just past the 100 lap mark, driving up to second on lap 103.
Once in second Larson set his sights on leader Joey Logano. Driving the No. 22 Team Penske Ford Mustang, Logano had dominated the race up to that point. He continued to lead as green flag pit stops began at lap 111. Logano pitted on lap 113, with Larson coming one lap later.
Following pit stops Logano had a two second lead over Larson, but by lap 125 Larson had caught Logano and began looking for the race lead. The two battled until lap 130 when the caution flag waved for fluid on the track.
All the leaders came down pit road under the caution period for fresh tires, with third-place Harvick taking the lead off pit road. Larson came off pit road second, followed by Logano and Busch.
“I wasn’t very happy when we got that last caution. Then we came off pit road and I knew we were on the bottom (for the restart) and the bottom hadn’t been doing very good,” Larson said.
The field returned to racing with 15 laps left, with Larson pulling ahead of Harvick to take the lead out of turn two. Behind Larson the No. 54 Toyota of Busch began to close, moving into second as the field made it back around to the start-finish line.
“I was surprised I got to the lead,” Larson said about the final restart. “We were really good the run before the last one, so I thought maybe we could get away. But the 54 (Busch) and the 5 (Harvick) were really good behind us.”
From there the race was on between Larson, Harvick and Busch. Over the next several laps Busch made repeated attempts to take the lead from Larson, but he was unable to complete the pass and fell into a battle with Harvick for second.
With seven to go Busch drifted high coming out of turn four and just grazed the outside wall, but he kept his foot in the gas and continued to chase Larson with Harvick also in the hunt. Busch used a big run out of turn four with five laps left to take the race lead, but Larson was not going to be denied.
Larson used the top side of the track to get a huge run coming out of turn two, blowing by Busch to retake the race lead. The move cost Busch most of his momentum, allowing Harvick to drive by him and into second place.
Harvick took his shot at Larson on the next lap, but he also lost momentum as Larson was able to fight back on the high side to retain the race lead. Busch briefly took second back, but Harvick fought back to get second back with two laps left.
Harvick used the low side in turns three and four during the final two laps to get alongside Larson, but he was unable to complete the pass as Larson survived to pick up the victory.
“Man, it was amazing,” Larson said from victory lane. “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 (Larson’s crew). They’ve been working their butts off all year long.
“We’ve been on a roll here lately in the Nationwide Series so it’s nice to finally get a win,” Larson said. “It means the world to finally get it here in my home state of California.”
Harvick, despite finishing second, admitted he had fun during the late-race battle with Busch and Larson.
“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. “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,” Harvick said.
Busch started 39th because his team was unable to get his car through technical inspection prior to qualifying earlier in the day. He made a big charge up through the field, eventually taking the lead on lap 42. He ended up finishing third.
“We had a fast race car, but our package just wasn’t great there through the middle part of the race. We were just kind of fighting some issues with being loose,” Busch said. “There at the end we wanted to make some big swings to it and we did.
We certainly got it tightened up but I was just too tight there at the end to make anything lower than the wall work. Larson, once he got up to the wall, kind of blocked me a little bit. It was a great battle there. It was a fun race going back and forth and trying to figure out who wanted to win the thing,” Busch said.
Logano, who led a race-high 96 laps, finished fourth. Polesitter Elliott Sadler completed the top five.