Larson dazzles in drive to the front at Fontana

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Kyle Larson was ninth on the final restart at California, with four rows of traffic to navigate in two laps in a frantic bid for the best finish possible. With Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart at the front, Larson wasn’t even thinking about victory.

Tony’s going to win,” Larson radioed his Chip Ganassi Racing team.

“Man, these restarts are crazy. You never know,” replied crew chief Chris Heroy.

So Larson went for the win.

He weaved low on the start alongside teammate Jamie McMurray, but quickly surged ahead. Then he blew past childhood idol Jeff Gordon and found himself in a side-by-side race with Paul Menard. Using the apron, his wheels inching dangerously close to the infield grass, Larson quickly cleared Menard.

He gained five spots on the first lap, and now had just three cars in front of him. He again drove low. As Kyle Busch passed his older brother and Stewart for the lead, Larson swept past Stewart and tucked in behind Busch.

He looked inside for the lead, but Busch threw a block that stopped Larson’s momentum.

No matter. Second was just fine for the rookie.

“Wow,” Larson said after following Busch across the finish line at Auto Club Speedway. “Wow! Wow! Good job!”

Larson was echoing the sentiments of thousands of fans who had just been wowed by a dazzling drive through the pack.

If there were any doubts that he belonged at NASCAR’s top level, the 21-year-old answered them at Fontana.

He beat Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick on Saturday for his first win in a Nationwide Series race, then seemed to use everything he’d learned from watching the big names all those years to nearly steal Sunday’s victory, too.

Larson, you may recall, is the former sprint car driver that’s been raved about by Kasey Kahne, Stewart and Gordon for years. They’d seen what he could do in a car, including one magical night in 2011 at Stewart’s Eldora Speedway, where Larson became only the second driver in history to win in all three kinds of USAC cars in a single night.

Although his interest was in IndyCar, he was snapped up before the 2012 season by Chip Ganassi and placed in a NASCAR driver development program. He was 19 and competing in a stock car for the first time in his life.

He was placed in the K&N; Pro Series East and won two races and the championship.

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