FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson held off Austin Dillon and Daniel Suarez in a tense finish Sunday to win at Fontana for the second time.
After trailing under penalty, Larson earned his 17th career win and 11th of his year-plus at Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. But Larson added just another famous surfboard trophy to his 2017 prize after hanging on to the lead with a thrilling finish in the first race for NASCAR’s Next Gen car at an intermediate track.
“There were definitely guys who were faster than us, but they had their misfortune,” Larson said. “We just kept the lead all day. …the whole race was crazy, but it was really good to get a win in California.
Larson surprisingly hadn’t won a race anywhere in 2022, but the relentless cross-country competitor and Northern California native picked up another victory at Auto Club Speedway in an entertaining race with lots of passes, lots of mistakes and moves. thrilling up and down on five-width seasoned asphalt.
Larson had victory in sight with eight laps to go when Chase Elliott spun and forced a race-record 12th warning. Elliott had a beef with teammate Hendrick several rounds earlier when he was pinned into the wall by Larson, who apologized over the radio.
Larson came out of the pits first and he started the restart with four laps to go. He was neck and neck with Suarez with two laps to go, and Dillon entered the repechage to fire his own shot at the leader, but Larson hung on through it all on the 25-year-old asphalt who was matched beautifully with the new car.
Dillon came second and Suarez slipped to fourth behind Erik Jones as the Chevrolets took the top four spots.
“We had a fast car, but we went through a lot of adversity,” Suarez said. “It’s a lot of fun to race like that.”
The teams expected the new car to be a challenge all weekend in their first attempt at racing on a two-mile track, with their concerns compounded by having only been granted 15 minutes of testing on Saturday. After 10 cars spun or crashed in qualifying and practice, several drivers scraped the wall or spun early on Sunday, including Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski.
Busch had an early spin followed by a puncture, and Elliott hit the wall early. Bubba Wallace and Keselowski then made contact with 43 laps to go in a sinking that collected Harrison Burton.
But the new car also led to incredibly competitive racing, and occasional contact between drivers didn’t necessarily lead to failures. Seven drivers held a share of the lead early on with more than a dozen lead changes before the halfway mark.
Tyler Reddick won the first two stages and led 90 laps on Sunday – more than he had led in his entire previous Combined Cup career – but his race collapsed with 48 laps to go. He got an apartment shortly before William Byron broke loose and slammed him into the wall, ending Byron’s day.
Reddick came back, but finished 24th. The California native was also leading the Clash at the Coliseum three weeks ago before being sidelined by a propeller shaft failure.
Daytona 500 champion and Fontana poleman Austin Cindric finished 16th.
At the 32nd Cup Series race at Fontana, drivers tied the 2008 course record with 12 cautions – and that was in a 500-mile race, rather than the current 400-mile iteration.
RAMS GO RACIN’
NASCAR’s closest race to Hollywood had its usual handful of movie stars, including Danny Trejo, but the biggest names were Southern California sports. Slugger Albert Pujols drove the pace car, while Los Angeles Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth was joined in his grand marshal duties by Matthew Stafford.
Whitworth said his second date with his wife, Melissa, was at a NASCAR race as she spoke about it. Stafford considered himself a casual racing fan, but he backed Elliott as a No. 9 with Georgia connections.
Neither Whitworth nor Pujols have made any announcement about their playing future. Stafford said he wanted his 40-year-old blind protector back, but he will respect Whitworth’s decision because “he’s old”.
The West Coast swing continues at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6. Larson won the Vegas spring race last year.
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