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Kyle Larson holds off Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez for NASCAR win at Fontana

Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, celebrates with the checkered flag after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway on Feb. 27, 2022, in Fontana, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

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 starting at the rear under penalty, Larson raced to his 17th career victory and the 11th in his year-plus at Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. But Larson 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.”

Larson surprisingly hadn’t won any races anywhere in 2022, but the relentless multidisciplinary competitor and Northern California native cruised to another win at Auto Club Speedway in an entertaining race featuring ample passing, plenty of mistakes and thrilling top-to-bottom moves on the seasoned five-wide asphalt.

Larson had victory in sight with eight laps to go when Chase Elliott spun and forced a race-record 12th caution. Elliott had a beef with his Hendrick teammate several laps earlier when he got pinched into the wall by Larson, who apologized for it on the radio.

Larson made it out of the pits first, and he led off the restart with four laps to go. He was neck-and-neck with Suarez with two laps left, and Dillon got into the draft to take his own shot at the leader, but Larson hung on through it all on the 25-year-old asphalt that meshed splendidly with the new car.

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.”

Teams expected the new car to be a challenge all weekend in their first attempt to race it on a two-mile track, with their worries compounded by getting only 15 minutes of practice Saturday. After 10 cars spun or crashed in qualifying and practice, several drivers scraped the wall or spun early Sunday, most notably Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski.

Busch had an early spin followed by a flat tire, and Elliott ran himself into the wall early. Bubba Wallace and Keselowski then made contact with 43 laps to go in a wreck that collected Harrison Burton.

But the new car also led to impressively competitive racing, and casual contact between drivers didn’t necessarily lead to wipeouts. Seven drivers held a share of the lead early on with well over a dozen lead changes before the halfway point.

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.

Daytona 500 champ and Fontana polesitter Austin Cindric finished 16th.

Ample caution

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 old.”

Next up

The West Coast swing continues at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6. Larson won Vegas’ spring race last year.