FONTANA, Calif. — Kyle Larson won his first Nationwide Series race Saturday, holding off Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch in a thrilling finish at Fontana.
The 21-year-old Larson became the first California native to win a Nationwide race at the 2-mile oval, surviving a three-man derby in the final laps that had the fans on their feet.
After Harvick’s final attempt to pass him failed, Larson celebrated with a burnout in Victory Lane, but only after detaching his steering wheel and holding it out the window.
“Those last 11, 12 laps were the longest laps of my life,” Larson said. “I’ve been so close to winning so many times, but the fashion we did it in was extra special.”
One of NASCAR’s most promising young drivers, Larson is from Elk Grove, Calif., near Sacramento. After being named Nationwide’s top rookie last season, he’s driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Sprint Cup series.
Harvick finished just 0.342 seconds behind after barely missing on repeated attempts to slip underneath Larson’s Chevy for the lead.
“We had a lot of fun there at the end, obviously,” Harvick said. “You’d rather win the race, but any time you can put on a show like that for the fans, you’re excited about that.”
Larson had finished second in five previous Nationwide races, but never won. Busch held him off at Bristol last week, and Larson was beginning to wonder when he would get his breakthrough win.
Busch, the defending champion at Fontana after last year’s weekend sweep, started 39th after missing qualifying with car problems. He roared through the field to take the lead before coming up just short in the big finish.
“He deserved it,” Busch said after congratulating Larson in Victory Lane. “He’s worked hard, and that’s why he’s in Cup.”
Joey Logano was fourth after leading 96 laps early on, and Elliott Sadler finished fifth.
After a caution for fuel on the track, a green flag with 16 laps to go kicked off a wild scramble for the lead. Larson got out front, while Busch swerved in front of Harvick for second.
Larson and Busch dueled for the next few laps, trading the lead. Harvick soon joined the hunt, and Busch stayed in the group despite scraping the wall with seven laps to go.
SPRINT CUP: The last time Denny Hamlin drove on California’s venerable 2-mile oval, he had to be airlifted from the track. The wreck was on his mind the first time he drove into that fateful third turn again this weekend.
“The next time I came around, it was an afterthought,” Hamlin said. “And I haven’t thought about it since.”
That last-lap crash with bitter rival Joey Logano cost both men a chance to win at Fontana last March, and Kyle Busch slipped between them for NASCAR’s most spectacular finish of last season.
“It was a bad weekend for us, for sure, and obviously affected the rest of our season and beyond,” said Hamlin, who broke a vertebra when he smashed into the inside wall.
Hamlin and Logano are among several cars to watch as NASCAR’s new season gets into gear at one of the drivers’ favorite tracks Sunday, but there’s probably no driver who wants a Fontana win more than Hamlin.
“My engineer always asks me to send three tracks where I would most like to win, and maybe they will spend a little bit more extra effort on that particular race track,” said Hamlin, who starts 13th.
“For me, California is No. 1 because we never made it to the finish last year. We had a great shot to win it, but we never made it. It would feel like we do have to get some redemption, and it would make a great story.”
Hamlin still hasn’t recaptured top form after the crash, which cost him nearly five full races and left him in back pain for months.
“Physically, I feel really good,” Hamlin said. “The best I’ve felt back-wise in a really long time – I mean years and years. I’m better than I was before the wreck, for sure.”