The final stop of NASCAR’s West Coast tour took place in southern California at the Auto Club Speedway. After three consecutive weeks of finishing 2nd, Kyle Larson successfully broke through on Sunday to win his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
Larson opened the weekend on a high note as he won the pole for the race, followed by a win in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race. Denny Hamlin started opposite him on the front row, staying on the inside line. As they came to the green, Hamlin struggled to get up to speed, stacking up the line and hitting Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick. Harvick and Newman pitted and apply tape to their grilles as a result. With damage to his rear, Keselowski dropped back to 18th before he was spun by Jimmie Johnson on lap three, bringing out the first caution of the day.
While the leaders pitted, Paul Menard and David Ragan elected to stay out and comprised the top two positions for the restart on lap eight. Both drivers were unable to make an impact as Larson quickly passed both of them to reclaim the lead.
On lap 25, Harvick’s misfortunes continued as he cut a tire, forcing him to pit and went a lap down. Eight laps later, green flag pit stops for the rest of the field began as Martin Truex Jr. took the lead from Larson thanks to a faster stop. Truex continued to lead until there were 12 laps remaining in the first stage, when Larson – running on the inside line – passed him. From there, Larson established himself as the dominant car as he placed much of the field a lap down, with only the top 18 remaining on the lead lap. By the end of the stage on lap 60, Larson recorded his first career stage victory. Behind him were Truex, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Hamlin.
The second stage began on lap 68 with Truex as the leader, while Larson’s decision to pit placed him in 5th. It did not take long for the California native to catch up to the leader, moving up to 2nd in less than two laps. Truex continued to lead as he and Larson pitted with 30 laps left in the stage, closing it out with a decisive stage win as he held a margin of over eight seconds to runner-up Larson. Elliott, Bowyer, Jones, McMurray, Kyle Busch, Logano, Hamlin and Keselowski rounded out the top-10.
Stage #3 began on lap 127 as Larson claimed the lead from Truex. 11 laps later, Corey LaJoie collided with the turn three wall, an incident that his team remarked might have made his #83 car better. Green flag stops resumed with 44 laps to go, though pit road was not exempt from cars making contact as Johnson spun while trying to avoid Truex, causing his crew to perform the stop while his car is sideways. During the cycle of stops, Kyle Busch led five laps before pitting, relinquishing the lead to Ty Dillon before he pitted shortly after. Larson took the lead once again, though another caution came out on lap 179 when LaJoie’s teammate, Gray Gaulding, blew a tire and went into the wall. Considering his crew’s success earlier in the race, it seemed uncharacteristic for Truex to drop down to 7th after his stop during the caution period.
The green flag came out with 16 laps to go, but the yellow quickly returned when Matt Kenseth was clipped by Truex exiting turn two, spinning him and causing a heavy impact with the inside wall. Kenseth was uninjured in the wreck, one that caused the booth to express their relief at the inside wall being a SAFER barrier. With 11 laps to go, the race resumed with both Kyles starting on the front row. Larson pulled away from Busch and was in position when a second caution came out two laps later for LaJoie’s spin.
Larson elected to pit, while Hamlin, McMurray and Truex stayed out for the restart with five laps to go. Hamlin led the lap, though Larson was able to close in and make the pass on the inside line with four to go when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun; Stenhouse made contact with his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Trevor Bayne, and spun out in turn two. The caution set up NASCAR Overtime and a two-lap dash to the finish.
For overtime, the front row consisted of the same duo who started the race as Larson and Hamlin took the green. With the help of 3rd-placed Truex, Larson pulled away from Hamlin, though Truex was unable to make the pass for 1st. Larson went on to win his second career Cup Series race and first since the 2016 Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan, ending a 16-race winless streak. He is also the first driver to win the Fontana Cup race from the pole since Johnson won the August race in 2008, and the first to sweep both the Fontana race weekend since Kyle Busch accomplished the feat in 2013.
With the win, the points leader snaps a three-race streak of finishing 2nd and continues his strong start to the 2017 campaign. In the first five races, Larson has finished in the top-10 in four; the lone exception, the Daytona 500, was nearly a victory for him until he ran out of fuel on the final lap. He has finished in the top-5 in six of his last seven starts dating back to the fall Phoenix race (the 2017 Daytona 500 being the lone exception), including four 2nd-place finishes.
“This is just amazing,” Larson stated. “We have been so good all year long, three 2nds 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.”
Keselowski, who rebounded from his early spin to finish 2nd, praised Larson’s performance. “He’s on a really nice roll, and it takes everything. This is a sport of speed, execution and luck, and when you’re on a roll like that, you’ve got all three on your side.”
Next week, NASCAR travels to its first short track of the season at Martinsville Speedway. The Camping World Truck Series ends its month-long break with the Alpha Energy Solutions 250 on Saturday, the Cup Series follows with the STP 500 on Sunday.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)
Featured image courtesy of @NASCAR