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Nationwide Breakdown: Larson Hits the Bullseye in California
Kyle Larson was all smiles after coming out ahead of fellow Cup drivers Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch on Saturday.

Nationwide Breakdown: Larson Hits the Bullseye in California

Close doesn’t cut it for Kyle Larson anymore. After a year-plus of close calls at the Nationwide level, including a second-place finish at Bristol last week the Sprint Cup rookie finally broke through for his first career victory. But this one, Larson would have to earn after fending off two of the sport’s best in the final laps. Sparring with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, Larson stayed up front in a clean, exciting finish to win the TreatMyClot.com 300 at Auto Club Speedway.

“Man, that was an awesome race!” Larson commented. “I had a heckuva race with those guys. The last 11 or so laps were the longest laps of my life. It was great racing them near the end. I thought I’d run away from them, but they were side-by-side and not going anywhere. That was a blast. Hats off to all these guys. That was a blast out there and I’m pretty sure tomorrow will be a heck of a race.”

Kyle Larson was all smiles after coming out ahead of fellow Cup drivers Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch on Saturday.

Kyle Larson was all smiles after coming out ahead of fellow Cup drivers Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch on Saturday.

With 20 laps to go in the 300-mile event, a caution flew for debris, bringing the leaders down pit road. Harvick won the race off, with fresh tires followed by Larson, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. Once the field went back to green, with 16 laps left, Larson grabbed the lead and started to pull ahead in front of the field.

As the laps wore down, though Harvick and Busch closed the gap, despite battling for second and third with each other. Both drivers, in the midst of their scuffle took shots at passing Larson, all the way to the checkered but to no avail. Larson used the momentum on the high side, fending off their tricks to keep ahead of them both just enough.

Harvick was left to settle for second, then collecting his third top 5 in three Nationwide starts this year for JR Motorsports.

“I’d rather win,” he admitted, “But when you’re involved in a race like that you can’t be too disappointed.”

Kyle Busch finished third after having to start at the rear of the field due not posting a time during qualifying as a result of failing pre-race technical inspection five times.

“[I] shouldn’t be anybody happier than the fans in the stands. The fans won,” Busch said afterwards, after going down to personally congratulate Larson. “[Kyle Larson] deserves it, he’s worked hard and that’s why he’s in the Cup series.”

Once again, Cup regulars dominated the event, leading all but four laps and sweeping the top-4 positions. Here’s some more details on what was one of the more exciting Nationwide races to be held this season…

The Good

After winning the Coors Light Pole in qualifying, Elliott Sadler had a solid race, running in or around the top 5 all day before coming home fifth, the best Nationwide Series regular on Saturday. It marks Sadler’s second top 5 and third top 10 of 2014, maintaining momentum he hopes will leads towards a series title. Sadler said before the race that while a pole may not mean much, it gives the team positive mojo and helps propel them towards more success. His thoughts played true as he was able to run up front, keeping pace with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.

Rookie Chase Elliott came back to finish sixth, following contact with the wall on lap 73 due to contact from Dylan Kwasniewski as the latter got loose. The comeback was impressive, Elliott forced back to 15th and needing several pit stops under yellow simply to get the car back up to speed. Slicing through traffic, in the closing laps with a damaged car this freshman is already racing like a veteran. The Georgia native now has four top-10 finishes in the first five races of the season, opening eyes with the second JR Motorsports car.

Rookie Ty Dillon also posted a solid performance, as he finished eighth for his fourth top 10 of the season. Dillon is one of five drivers within 11 points of the series lead five races into the year. (Regan Smith, Trevor Bayne, Sadler, and Elliott are the others).

The Bad

After a solid qualifying effort, West Coast native Brendan Gaughan predicted having a good run in today’s race. However, that wasn’t meant to be as Gaughan struggled, falling a lap down from his 10th starting spot and needing a Lucky Dog to simply finish 15th. He and his team will need to work on their mile-and-a-half package moving forward if he wants to stay in the championship hunt.

Coming off a bad weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, Ryan Reed finished outside of the top 10 at Auto Club Speedway in 17th. Jack Roush hired Reed as one of his rookies for 2014, along with Chris Buescher, in hopes that both would contend for Rookie of the Year. However, given Reed’s performances, in comparison to Elliott and Dillon, the 18-year-old could use some improvement. Both drivers remain outside of the top 10 in series points.

The Ugly

After being outspoken this week about Sprint Cup drivers running Nationwide Series races, Tanner Barryhill didn’t have the performance that he was looking for as he went down laps early on his way to finishing 31st. Berryhill, whose car stalled on pit road needed extensive time behind the wall for repairs; he’s yet to finish a race this season inside the top 20.

Coming off of a solid top-15 result at Bristol Motor Speedway, Landon Cassill saw his day end early at Auto Club Speedway as a result of a fuel pump failure on his No. 01 Flex Seal Chevrolet for Johnny Davis. The bad luck dropped this underdog team outside the top 10 in series points.

Underdog of the Race: David Ragan had a solid performance today with a 13th-place run in his No. 98 Carroll Shelby Engine Co. Ford for Biagi-DenBeste Racing. Auto Club Speedway marked Ragan’s second start for the underfunded organization, and in both starts he has brought them home top-20 finishes this year.

The Double-Duty and Start-And-Park Effect: Seven of Saturday’s 40 starters will run both the Nationwide Series event and Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race this weekend, including the top four finishers in the Nationwide race.

Four of 40 drivers chose to start-and-park in today’s race. They collected a total of $57,035.

Final Thoughts:

  • The combination of a worn-out track surface, along with tires that lose grip over the course of a run, produced one of the most exciting races in the Nationwide Series season so far. This could mark a preview for the rest of the intermediate tracks, this season which in return would help boost the ratings.
  • Once again, Sprint Cup drivers dominate a Nationwide race. However, there haven’t been as many complaints expressed following Saturday’s event. Is that due to the caliber of racing and how close the finish was? Or is it a result of Kyle Busch not winning the race? Busch made a comment in response to the cheers about the finish to MRNradio, post-race stating that people only seem to complain vocally when he wins versus other Cup regulars.
  • Ryan Sieg failed post-race technical inspection as his car failed to meet the rear ride height requirement. Expect a series of penalties to be announced on Tuesday.
  • As the Nationwide Series heads into their first off-weekend of the season, early championship favorites are starting to emerge with Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and Ty Dillon. However, with seven months of racing left it’s still anybody’s title to win.

About Ashley McCubbin

Ashley McCubbin
A Frontstretch rookie in 2014, Ashley acts as super sub for different columnists while contributing to our free e-newsletter each week as a news reporter. Residing in Canada, she freelances for a number of racing publications, from SpeedwayMedia.com to On Pit Road while covering local short tracks up in Ontario.