VICTORY LAP: Larson Closes the Deal in Fontana

Attention, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers: there’s a new sheriff in town.

Kyle Larson shook off his demons of coming up one spot short of victory lane and “#ParkedIt” in the winner’s circle on Sunday in the Auto Club 400 from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Larson, who won stage one and led a race-high 110 laps, earned his second career Monster Energy Cup Series victory in his fourth full-time season, surviving overtime to do so.


THE FINISH

There was only one caution flag for an on-track incident in the first 181 laps. But when Gray Gaulding hit the wall to bring out the fourth caution of the afternoon, everything changed.

Teams began plotting different strategies, restarts got more intense and a green/white/checkered overtime finish would decide the winner. But not before three more yellow flags flew. The second-to-last caution forced the leaders to make the decision nobody wants to make: to pit or not to pit. Larson, along with some others, opted to come down pit road for fresh tires, while Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray stayed out.

Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

Larson restarted third with five laps to go and got the lead in no time. But the final caution, brought out by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., set up the overtime finish. Larson drove away from the field and held off Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. (won stage two and led 73 laps) for the win.

Keselowski finished second while Clint Bowyer came home third for his first top five since August 2015. Truex Jr. and Joey Logano closed out the top five as well. McMurray, Daniel Suarez (best career finish of seventh), Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott rounded out the top ten when the checkered flag flew. Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, Kevin Harvick, Hamlin and last week’s winner, Ryan Newman, finished in the 11th to 15th positions.

Some other notable finishers included Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 16th, Kasey Kahne in 20th, Jimmie Johnson in 21st, Kurt Busch in 24th and Matt Kenseth in 36th after a late race wreck.


SCREW SECOND

“If you ain’t first, you’re last,” is famous (or infamous, you make the call) in the world of NASCAR, and Kyle Larson knows that better than anybody in 2017.

The 24-year old Elk Grove, Calif. native came into this race with three straight second-place finishes. In the Daytona 500, he led on the final lap before running out of fuel. In the 2016 finale, he also finished second to eventual champion Jimmie Johnson.

But this week, he did one spot better, winning for the first time this season for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Target Chevrolet and second time in his career (Michigan, 2016).

“It’s great to be Kyle Larson right now,” he admitted in the media center post-race.

Photo: Getty Images

“I was staying as calm as I could be, but also frustrated at the same time,” Larson explained when asked about the late race restarts and overtime. “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.”

Larson leads the MENCS points standings for the second week in a row. He also swept the weekend, winning the Service King 300 in the XFINITY Series on Saturday. With the win, a playoff spot is all but secured for him as well.

“This is just amazing,” he said. “We’ve 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.”


GANASSI CAME TO PLAY

Chip Ganassi Racing has come out of the gates stronger than anybody imagined in 2017. Larson and McMurray sit first and sixth in the points standings. McMurray has scored three top 10’s this season, while Larson has a win, three runner-up’s and a 12th at Daytona.

“It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in the media center of the team’s strong start. “Everybody said ‘What is it this year?’ I keep saying, in this business, it doesn’t take much to be good and it doesn’t take much to be bad. We try to look at places that need improvements and we make improvements.”

Coming into this race, the last time CGR was leading the points standings was in 2002 with Sterling Marlin.

“It’s hard sometimes when you have a group of so many people involved in this team,” Ganassi said. “Putting the cars together, building our own chassis […] little changes can take you to the promised land, or they can take you to the wrecker. Every team owner wants their cars to be like this (running well consistently). Not one in the front and one in the back.”


TROUBLE FROM THE GET GO

A couple superstars got into some trouble as the race began—on lap 0, as Kevin Harvick stated after the race on Twitter. So, what happened?

Hamlin started the race in second place on the inside. He spun his tires on the initial start, creating an accordion effect throughout the field. Drivers are now allowed to change lanes before crossing the start/finish line on restarts, so naturally, things got a little messy.

Keselowski got into Hamlin, Newman got into Keselowski and Harvick got into Newman. The No. 2, No. 31 and No. 4 all sustained damage, with the No. 4’s being the most severe as it was on the nose. The No. 2 had most of the damage on the rear.

A few laps later, Keselowski brought out the first caution of the day as he was sent spinning across the infield grass thanks to a tap from the No. 48 coming off turn four. The car didn’t sustain any further damage from the spin, but all teams made repairs throughout the race.


BIG NAMES REBOUND

Harvick was multiple laps down for 198 of the 202 laps on Sunday afternoon. But the No. 4 got the lucky dog on the final caution and somehow wheeled the Busch Beer Ford to a 13th-place result, passing four cars in the final turn on the final lap.

Keselowski came home second after interim crew chief Brian Wilson stayed calm on top of the pit box and guided the No. 2 crew to repair the Team Penske Ford well enough.

“We were tore all to hell,” Keselowski said post-race to reporters. “Just great perseverance. I feel lucky to get second. I’m curious to see what we’d be able to do if we weren’t torn up.”


BOWYER REJUVENATED

It’s been a long, hard journey for Clint Bowyer. From “Spingate” at Richmond International Raceway to his dismal season with the now-deceased HScott Motorsports last season, the driver of the No. 14 is back inside the top five and doing what Clint Bowyer does best: have fun.

“I’m just having fun again,” Bowyer told reporters post-race. “That’s what it’s about. When you’ve got a team like this, it better be. I’ve been beat up pretty bad over the last year-and-a-half. To have a crew chief like Mike Bugarewicz, owners like Tony Stewart and Gene Haas.”

“It’s a lot of fun again […] it’s a confidence thing right now, a momentum-builder,” he went on to say. “We’re getting closer. I wanted to win that damn thing but to come home with the wild finish, we’ll take it.”

It was his first top five finish at ACS since 2010.


WHAT’S NEXT

The MENCS’ west coast swing has concluded. NASCAR heads back east for some good ole short track racing. Martinsville Speedway will host the STP 500 on Sunday, April 2, 2017 for the first short-track race of the season. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be back in action after nearly a month hiatus as well for the Alpha Energy Solutions 250.