FONTANA – The weekend belonged to Kyle Larson.
The 24-year-old Elk Grove native made it a clean sweep of his NASCAR weekend Sunday, winning the 21st annual Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
“Our Target Chevy was awesome all day,” said Larson. “We had a great first stage. I made some mistakes on the second stage start but was still able to get second in the stage, then I had a good re-start on the third stage. I was able to get by the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) and had some great re-starts after those late race cautions.”
The Auto Club 400 was really a two-man race between Larson and Truex.
The rest of the 39-car field was in a battle for third place as the leaders dominated the day.
Larson, starting from the pole position, jumped into the lead right away.
Truex, who started fourth, made a quick first lap move into second.
Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman provided instant drama.
After getting the green flag, Newman accelerated into the back of Keselowski’s car, causing enough damage that Keselowski lost a lot of his aerodynamics, causing him to lose speeding, dropping him all the way back to 17th.
Running in heavy traffic, Keselowski was hit again on the third lap – this time by both Jimmie Johnson and Trevor Bayne, spinning Keselowski out.
Three laps in and Keselowski was already in the pits.
But everyone else took advantage of the early caution to stop for fresh tires which gave Keselowski’s crew the time to fix the damage and get him back on the track at the back of the pack but still on the lead lap.
The cars raced non-stop through the end of the 60-lap Stage 1 with Larson holding off Truex for the stage win.
The race goes into an automatic caution when each stage ends, giving drivers the chance to pit for fuel and fresh tires.
The re-start on lap 67 of the 200 lap race was clean with Truex almost instantly passing Larson for the lead.
The racers kept going and going right through the end of Stage 2, with no incidents right through the end of the stage on lap 120.
Truex led the entire stage with Larson right behind.
Keselowski, who been back as far as 25th, moved back into contention in 10th place by the end of the stage.
This time Larson jumped into the lead at the beginning of the final stage and never really gave it up.
When the leaders all went to Pit Road for tires and fuel on lap 155, Kyle Busch stayed on track and went into the lead.
But that only lasted until he had to hit the pits and when he did, on lap 165, Larson was back in the lead.
So it was smooth sailing, cruise control all for Larson and Truex all day – until back of the pack racer Gary Gaulding hit the wall on turn 1 on the 180th lap, stopping his car dead on the track and bringing out the caution flag once again.
Then the fun began.
There were three more cautions in the final 14 laps of the race – Truex tapped Matt Kenseth’s car on lap 185, spinning Kenseth out; Corey LaJoie hit the wall in Turn 2 on lap 192; and Kasey Kahne, Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. all banged into each other on Turn 2 on lap 198 that set up a two-lap overtime sprint to the finish.
Truex actually moved into the lead when Larson pitted after LaJoie’s accident but Larson grabbed it back just before the final caution and with fresher tires, he was able to hold off Truex in the final dash for the cash.
By this time, Keselowski had raced back into contention and was also able to pass Truex on the final stretch to finish second. So did Clint Bowyer who finished third with Truex fading to fourth.
“I fought all the way,” said Keselowski. “I wanted to win. We gave it our best shot but it just didn’t happen. This is a sport of speed, execution and luck and when you have all three on your side, everything is good. Kyle is on a really good roll.”
“I was worried going into that final re-start,” said Larson. “I knew I’d have to fight off Brad and Martin.”
Joey Logano, who started the day 35th on the starting grid, kept gaining ground all afternoon to finish fifth.
Coming off three straight second place Cup race finishes, the day – and the weekend – belonged to Larson, who kicked it off by winning the pole for Sunday’s Cup race on Friday, added to it with his Xfinity win Saturday and a Monster win in the Monster Energy Cup series Sunday.
“I’m really fortunate to be driving fast race cars right now,” said Larson. “I’m more surprised that we won the (Xfinity) race yesterday but I was really confident going into the race today.”