FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Even after Kyle Larson's dominant finish to 2021, he entered the new NASCAR Cup Series season full of uncertainty.
“Going into a new car, you just don’t know if you’re going to win or not,” he said.
Just two races into the new year in the new car, Larson no longer has to wonder — although his path to victory included a fateful collision with furious teammate Chase Elliott on a wild day at Fontana.
The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion held off Austin Dillon and Daniel Suarez in a tense finish Sunday, surviving a restart with four laps left to win at Auto Club Speedway for the second time.
Before the chaotic finish, Larson and Elliott made contact with just under 20 laps to go, with Larson pinching his Hendrick Motorsports teammate into the wall while he fought to stay in front of Joey Logano. Larson apologized for the collision over the radio, saying he hadn’t seen Elliott making a bold move to get past him — but Elliott, who finished 26th, and his team were decidedly displeased.
“I had no clue he was even coming,” Larson said. “I hate that I ended his day after they had worked so hard to get back to the lead lap. It was probably just an honest mistake on both of our parts. ... I know they’re upset, but I would never run into my teammate and block them on purpose that late.”
Larson then had victory in sight with eight laps to go when Elliott spun, forcing a race-record 12th caution. NASCAR fans went wild with online speculation that Elliott’s spin was a deliberate attempt to hurt Larson’s chances to win.
Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels dismissed that notion, and they believe there won’t be long-term damage to their Hendrick relationship.
“I know we’re all great teammates together,” Daniels said. “I know it’s nothing they would ever do intentionally. I don’t blame Chase at all for making what could have been the race-winning move (earlier). ... Unfortunate, but I know we’re all going to get on the same page.”
The brouhaha with Elliott colored another superb race for Larson, who surprisingly hadn’t won any races anywhere yet in 2022. After starting at the rear under penalty, the relentless multidisciplinary competitor and Northern California native roared to another win at Fontana in an entertaining race featuring ample passing, plenty of mistakes and thrilling top-to-bottom moves on the seasoned five-wide asphalt.
Larson made it out of the pits first after the final caution, and he led off the final restart. He was neck-and-neck with Suarez, who briefly got in front with two laps left before Dillon got into the draft to take his own shot at the leader.
Larson hung on through it all and raced to his 17th career victory, the 11th in his year-plus at Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. But he only added another famed surfboard trophy to his 2017 award after clinging to the lead through an exciting finish in the first race for NASCAR's Next Gen car on an intermediate track.
“There was definitely some guys that were quicker than us, but they had their misfortune,” Larson said. “Just kept our heads in it all day. ... the whole race was crazy, but definitely good to get a win in California.”
Dillon came in second, and Suarez slipped to fourth behind Erik Jones as 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.”
Logano was fifth, while Daytona 500 champ and Fontana polesitter Austin Cindric finished 16th.
Tyler Reddick won the first two stages and led 90 laps Sunday — more than he had led in his entire previous Cup career combined — but his race fell apart from the lead with 48 laps to go. He got a flat shortly before William Byron got loose and ran him into wall, ending Byron’s day.
Reddick returned, but finished 24th. The California native also was leading the Clash at the Coliseum three weeks ago before he was sidelined by a prop shaft failure.
In the 32nd Cup Series race at Fontana, the 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 smattering of movie stars, including Danny Trejo, but the biggest names were from 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 while she reported on it. Stafford called himself a casual racing fan, but he was rooting for Elliott as a fellow No. 9 with Georgia connections.
Neither Whitworth nor Pujols had any announcements about their playing futures. Stafford said he wants his 40-year-old blind-side protector to return, but he'll respect whatever decision Whitworth makes because "he's an old man.”
The West Coast swing continues at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6. Larson won Vegas' spring race last year.
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