The Inside Line: Larson is the real deal in NASCAR

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Updated: 3/24 4:54 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - After nearly pulling off a weekend sweep at Auto Club Speedway in his home state of California, Kyle Larson is proving that he is the next big star in NASCAR.

On Saturday, Larson held off his fellow Sprint Cup Series competitors Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps to win the Nationwide Series race at ACS. It was his first career victory in the series.

In Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race there, Larson ran in ninth for the final restart with just two laps remaining but quickly charged through the field to take second on the last lap. He ran right behind Busch, who had just passed Kurt Busch, his elder brother, and Tony Stewart for the lead.

Larson then attempted to pass Busch for the top spot between turns 3 and 4 but could not make the move. Larson ended up crossing the finish line 0.214 seconds behind Busch.

"I was not expecting to get up that far ahead," Larson said of the last restart. "I thought starting on the inside I might be in trouble because I was really good early on the outside. I could drive by a couple of rows up top in (turns) 1 and 2. Somehow I got to second. I didn't know where Kyle was going to go in 3 and 4 because I hadn't seen him all day. So I just kind of followed him in there. We'll take a second. It seems like I run second a lot in stock cars, but I will take a second here at California."

After winning a Sprint Cup race at ACS for the second year in a row, Busch noted that he was quite impressed with Larson's performance.

"Man, what a shoe that boy is," Busch said. "If he would have gotten alongside of me, it would have been a whale of a race."

Don't be surprised if we see more of Busch and Larson battling each other for wins in the future, particularly in Nationwide races.

"It's no surprise Larson is good," Busch added. "He gets the experience there of racing against us, racing against me, Kevin (Harvick), racing against guys like Matt Kenseth, whoever else the Cup guys are that race Nationwide.

"Once he got here, he was more ready, and he ran some races last year, got his feet wet, got a taste of it, and then this year, he and his crew chief (Chris Heroy) have gone to work and they've communicated well, done a good job."

At 21, Larson is one of eight drivers competing for rookie of the year honors in Sprint Cup this year. Larson, whose hometown is Elk Grove, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento, was signed by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates to drive the No. 42 car in NASCAR's top series for the 2014 season. He replaced Juan Pablo Montoya, who is now racing in the IndyCar Series.

Larson competed in four Sprint Cup races for Turner Scott Motorsports last year. He made his debut in October at Charlotte. Larson began this season with a 38th-place finish in the Daytona 500, crashing late in that event, but his finishes have improved in each race since. He placed 20th at Phoenix and then 19th at Las Vegas before he notched his first career top-10 finish in Cup races with a 10th-place run at Bristol.

Larson's second-place finish in California moved him up to 16th in the point standings. Rookie Austin Dillon is presently ninth in points. The battle between Dillon and Larson for rookie of the year in Sprint Cup will likely be a tight one throughout the season.

"I'm sure we're going to have a lot of good races this year with Austin," Larson said. "I hope it's a nice, tight battle to the end. It would mean a lot if I could win that rookie of the year award. I only had 40-something stock car races in my career before I got to the Cup Series. I think it would mean a lot if I could beat guys that have a lot more experience in stock cars.

"Austin has won Nationwide rookie of the year, (Camping World) Truck (Series) rookie of the year, and championships in both series. So if I could stop him this year and win that rookie of the year, it would be really special."

Larson claimed the rookie of the year title in Nationwide last year. He is running a full schedule in that series again this season, driving for Turner Scott Motorsports.

Prior to his win in California, Larson had finished in five Nationwide races, including a runner-up to Busch earlier this month at Bristol. Larson was relieved when he took the checkered flag for the first time in the series.

"That last caution, I never noticed a TV screen in the middle of (turns) 1 and 2, and I saw my face and next to it (read) 'five second-place finishes in the Nationwide Series,' and I was like, "I am not getting another one.'" Larson said after winning Saturday's 300-mile Nationwide race in Fontana. "Those guys (Harvick and Busch) were running really hard with me, and I was like, 'Man, we're going to run second again.' Luckily, it worked out and was able to stop that streak and get a win, finally."

Larson's first Nationwide win came in his 38th start. He's hoping his maiden victory in Sprint Cup will come sooner than that.

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