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March 23, 2024

Kyle Larson rallies for Xfinity win at COTA, slipping by SVG, Hill on final lap

Kyle Larson was ultimately both patient and smart taking the lead on the final overtime lap to win an aggressive Focused Health 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Circuit of The Americas (COTA), the first road-course test for the series this year that earned an “A” for high drama and close competition.

New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen and Austin Hill were duking it out for the lead — and pushing each other high off the race line as the field approached the checkered flag. With those two fending each other off, Larson drove his No. 17 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet low around both and was able to pull away to a 1.215-second victory — the only lap the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champ led all day around the 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course.

RELATED: Official results | At-track photos: COTA

Van Gisbergen took the checkered flag second in the No. 97 Kaulig Racing Chevy but was accessed a 30-second penalty for exceeding track limits in that last-lap battle with Hill, which ultimately put him in 27th. So Hill, driver of the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, was officially scored as the runner-up.

Larson was all smiles climbing out of car, conceding he wasn’t surprised things got so aggressive in the end. He was one of the few cars — and only one among the front-runners — to drop into pit lane on the final caution to get gas and had worked his way back up front. It was his second big rally of the day. Larson dropped to the rear of the field before the start after his Hendrick Motorsports crew replaced a cracked brake rotor on his No. 17 Chevy. He recovered to challenge van Gisbergen and other front-runners through the middle stage of the race.

“It feels really special because seems like every time we’ve run the 17 car — any of us four drivers — we’re always fast on track and somehow give it away,” Larson said. “Today I was definitely not the fastest, but we were patient. I knew the 21 [Hill] had shoved SVG [van Gisbergen] through [Turn] 1 and if he got to him it could get dicey.

“I was just trying to be patient. I was thinking when to make my move and when I saw him shoving him through [turns] 15 and 16, I thought this could get good and thankfully I cleared them off in that corner. Pretty crazy. Just wild there. … Really cool, just awesome to win here at COTA.”

Neither van Gisbergen nor Austin Hill were too happy with the final outcome — both their cars damaged from the beating and banging on the final lap. Asked if he would speak to Hill about the racing, van Gisbergen said, “Yeah, I guess so.” But he was mostly positive about having a chance to win in only his fifth NASCAR Xfinity Series race of his career.

“It was a crazy race and the car got better and better,” van Gisbergen said. “On that last restart he [Hill] just drove through me in [turn] one. I guess I stood up for myself. But it was pretty awesome racing with [teammate] AJ [Allmendinger] and in the end just turned into a mess. That’s how it is.

“It was really fun. Wish I could have gotten through to the lead, but the car [Larson] just snuck through there. He was driving really well. A lot of fun.”

While van Gisbergen managed a smile for the post-race television interview, he definitely had to battle all afternoon — including with Kaulig teammate Allmendinger, a two-time winner of this COTA Xfinity Series race and the series’ best active road-course driver.

MORE: Weekend schedule: COTA

They battled head-to-head for the final laps of the regularly scheduled race, only for Allmendinger to get swept up and out in a three-wide attempt for the lead in Turn 1 during the first green-white-checkered flag period. He was running fifth at the time of the final caution that forced a second overtime start and ultimately finished 10th.

John Hunter Nemechek finished third, reigning series champion Cole Custer was fourth and Parker Kligerman rounded out the top five. Rookie Jesse Love, Austin Green, last week’s winner Chandler Smith, Sam Mayer and Allmendinger rounded out the top 10.

It was a particularly impressive day for Green, son of former Xfinity Series champion David Green, finishing seventh in his first series start.

Big Machine Racing driver Kligerman earned his first stage win of the year, claiming the Stage 1 victory. Brandon Jones seemingly won Stage 2 only to receive a penalty for cutting Turn 5 on the last lap of the stage. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Riley Herbst was instead awarded the stage win – his first of the season.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to competition next Saturday with the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Chandler Smith is the defending winner, earning his career first Xfinity Series trophy there last spring.

Notes: Post-race inspection was all clear in the Xfinity Series garage without major issue, with Larson’s No. 17 Chevrolet confirmed as the winning car. The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for driver Ty Gibbs was found with a single unsecured lug nut in a post-race check, which should mean a monetary fine for the team’s crew chief in the midweek penalty report.

Contributing: Staff reports