|SOURCE: Jeff Gross, Getty Images|
The finish, which came in Larson’s 80th series start, was his first of the season and his first in Cup since August 17, 2014, when he crashed after 94 laps of the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan, 53 races ago.
The 2014 Michigan crash was one of only a few hiccups during an impressive first season for the California native. Larson won Rookie of the Year that season on the heels of eight Top Fives, 17 Top Tens, and a 17th-place showing in Driver’s Points. He also broke through with two victories in the XFINITY Series, the first of which coming at the Auto Club track. Last year, Larson slipped just two positions in the points, but scored six fewer Top Fives and seven less Top Tens as his first Cup victory continued to elude him. Coming into Sunday’s race, Larson sat 17th in points once more, unable to find consistency after a 7th-place finish in the Daytona 500.
On Friday, Larson put up the 13th-fastest time in the opening practice and broke into the final round of qualifying, earning the 7th spot on the grid. Following a 23rd-fastest time in Saturday’s morning session, he looked to find speed again in Happy Hour when disaster struck. Larson scraped the wall in Turn 4 and was rear-ended by the fast-approaching Greg Biffle, causing heavy damage to both cars. The Chip Ganassi team decided against going to a backup car and instead began to rebuild the rear of Larson’s #42. Meanwhile, Larson would turn in an 8th-place finish in Saturday’s wild XFINITY Series race, having led twice for five laps.
At the start of Sunday’s Cup race, 39th in the fourth-consecutive short field went to Jeffrey Earnhardt and Go FAS Racing’s #32 Can-Am / Kappa Ford. By the end of Lap 1, Earnhardt had passed Josh Wise, whose #30 Chevrolet for the first time carried outside sponsorship from California building company SBC Contractors. On Lap 7, Michael Annett took a turn in 39th when his #46 Pilot Chevrolet for HScott Motorsports lost touch with the pack, but he slipped past Wise the next time by. Wise held the spot until Lap 16, when Kurt Busch pitted his #41 Haas Automation / Monster Energy Chevrolet after damage suffered from contact with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., costing Busch a lap. Busch’s teammate Brian Vickers took the spot next on Lap 26 when his #14 Janssen / Arnie’s Army / Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet hit the wall much harder, but the caution didn’t fall until two circuits later when Chris Buescher’s #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford lost a tire and broke loose in Turn 2.
On the Lap 32 restart, Buescher slipped behind Busch and Vickers to take the 39th spot, but tire problems continued to shuffle the order. Next to fall back was Kasey Kahne, who had to pit his #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet after a melted bead on his right-rear tire. Kahne and Buescher both picked up speed again, first dropping Earnhardt’s #32 to 9th on Lap 43, then Wise on Lap 45. Wise was still holding 39th, three laps down, when the caution flew again on Lap 49.
Kyle Larson was struggling with handling issues and running 27th, just a few laps away from being passed by the leaders. As Larson led Regan Smith down the backstretch, the #42’s left-rear tire came apart. Larson swerved, nudged the outside wall, then headed straight toward the SAFER barrier along the inside fence, nearly collecting Smith in the process. The blown tire damaged Larson’s brakes, and the car hit the wall head-on at nearly full-speed, lifting all four wheels off the ground. Larson walked away sore, but uninjured, while his car was done for the day.
Finishing 38th on Sunday was Danica Patrick, whose #10 TaxAct Chevrolet tangled with Kasey Kahne entering Turn 1 and slammed head-on into the outside wall in another frightening crash. 37th went to Greg Biffle, who lost a cylinder on the ensuing restart then trailed smoke from the pipes while at the tail end of the lead lap. Wise ended up 36th, still under power but 10 laps in arrears, followed by fellow Open driver Ryan Blaney in the #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford, his Top-15 run K.O.’d by a hard smack to the Turn 3 wall in the final moments.
*This is the first last-place finish for both Larson and the #42 in a Cup race at the Auto Club Speedway.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
39) #42-Kyle Larson / 46 laps / crash
38) #10-Danica Patrick / 120 laps / crash
37) #16-Greg Biffle / 146 laps / engine
36) #30-Josh Wise / 195 laps / running
35) #21-Ryan Blaney / 195 laps / crash
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Matt DiBenedetto, Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman, Cole Whitt, Josh Wise (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) BK Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, The Motorsports Group (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (4)
2nd) Toyota (1)