Larson refused to settle at Fontana
March 22, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
FONTANA, Calif. -- Kyle Larson didn't lack for late-race motivation Saturday afternoon at Auto Club Speedway, not with seasoned drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano -- the trio holding a combined resume of 126 Nationwide wins -- hounding him over the last green-flag stint. But a small reminder may have given him an extra amount of oomph.
"That last caution, I never noticed a TV screen in the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2," Larson said. "I saw my face and next to it, it said 'five second-place finishes in the Nationwide Series' and I was like, 'I am not getting another one.' "
For all the poise he demonstrated, all the stern challenges from NASCAR veterans he deflected and all the intense late-race laps on the ragged edge, it was easy to forget that Kyle Larson is still just 21-years-old. It was also easy to forget that for all the hype and success around his first forays into big-league stock-car racing, his NASCAR Nationwide Series cupboard was still bare.
The California kid didn't flinch Saturday afternoon, turning back three hard-nosed Sprint Cup vets to cash in with his first Nationwide victory in 38 career starts. Though Auto Club Speedway is a solid six-hour drive from his hometown of Elk Grove, the special milestone after a quintet of agonizing runner-up finishes in the series was extra savory in the backdrop of his home state.
"I feel amazing right now," said Larson, who's just four races into his first full-time season in NASCAR's premier series. "Probably more excited than I thought I would feel since I had gotten close five other times to winning a Nationwide race, but the way we got it done there at the end, beating Kyle, Kevin and Joey Logano was awesome."
The way the NASCAR Drive for Diversity product closed the final chapter of his breakthrough Nationwide win was pure storybook stuff. After he took command on the final restart with 16 laps remaining in the 150-lap Treatmyclot.com 300, Larson diced among two of NASCAR's best and most aggressive drivers on the 2-mile track's worn pavement, riding the high line as eventual runner-up Harvick and third-place Busch took turns at trying to get past.
Busch actually nosed ahead at the start-finish line with six laps remaining, but Larson inched back to the top spot after Busch's slight brush with the outside wall and stayed there, riding along the outer rim of the track on the way to the checkered flag.
"Again, he did a great job. He held everything together," said Busch, the series' winningest driver with 65 Nationwide victories. "He was a little loose and running on the edge right up next to the wall, but that's what Larson likes to do. So we see it a lot of weeks out of the year that he's able to do that and he proved it again today and didn't buckle under the pressure of either Kevin or I being up alongside him. He knew what he needed to do to win and did that."
The savvy beyond Larson's years wasn't lost on Harvick, either.
"I mean, the guy since the first race he came in here has been competitive," said Harvick, who shared the post-race media podium with top rookie and sixth-place finisher Chase Elliott. "He's a lot like Chase here sitting next to me. No big deal. They just go out and drive and act like they've been here for 20 years. It's pretty fun to see."
It was far more fun for Larson, who punctuated the win with a patented steering-wheel-less burnout and beamed as several drivers and crew members came to congratulate him in Victory Lane. The sprint-car standout's rapid rise through the stock-car ranks includes a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win last season at Rockingham and a full-time Sprint Cup roster spot this season, just two years removed from his championship in the developmental K&N Pro Series East.
Now he has a win one more rung up the NASCAR ladder and plenty of fond memories as a keepsake.
"A lot of things stand out there late in the race, but probably what means the most to me is to beat Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, who were right on my rear bumper the last 11 or 12 laps," Larson said. "I didn't really think that I could hold them off, especially how good Kyle Busch is and Kevin Harvick, who's really good at this track. Proud of myself for staying calm and not getting into the wall.
"There's a lot of things that stand out to make this race special -- it's California, my first win, how tough the competition is ... I'll definitely never forget this race."