CONCORD, N.C. -- Entering a race like Saturday's History 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kyle Larson and his No. 32 team have the goal of being the best NASCAR Nationwide Series regulars in the field.
Larson jumped five spots on a late restart and hung on to snag fourth place in an event on the 1.5-mile track studded with moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers. It was the second career top-five finish for the Nationwide Series rookie, whose best this year was a runner-up appearance at Bristol in March. But Saturday, battling the likes of Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano, fourth place felt like a victory -- especially given that Larson was the only series regular in the top five.
"Yeah, I was paying a little attention to that," he said of the elite company surrounding him. "I think it's really cool. Because the Cup guys are the best in the business, and to mix it up in the middle of it is a cool feeling. I was really proud of that."
Busch led 186 laps to dominate the event, which for him was a tune-up for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. Kahne and Logano finished second and third, while Kevin Harvick was fifth, former Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne was sixth and Matt Kenseth eighth. Although Bayne is full-time on the Nationwide tour this season, the only two drivers in the top eight Saturday without any Sprint Cup experience were Larson and his Turner Scott Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier, who finished seventh.
For Larson, in a field like that, best in class was good enough.
"We notice that," crew chief Trent Owens said. "Especially us being a Nationwide-only team, we always look down the list at the order of finish and see who the first Nationwide guy is. We try to be that guy every week. If we can be that guy every week, then it puts us in some good positions. But yeah, we take notice. We're looking forward to a place like Iowa where we don't have as many Cup drivers in the field. Hopefully, we can get a win there."
Larson struggled with the handling some in his Chevrolet early in the race, and used a two-tire stop after a late caution to jump up to eighth. But for him the key was restarts, including one where he jetted along the high line from eighth to third. He was hoping for a late caution that would give him one more chance to catch up to the leaders.
He didn't get it, but afterward he was hardly disappointed. "Heck, I'll take a fourth," Larson said. "This is a really great day."
And it continues a really great season for the 20-year-old California native, who with every week is leaving that airborne crash in the opener at Daytona a little further behind him. It was the rookie's second straight top-10 finish after a sixth-place result two weeks at Darlington.
"He's a really talented guy, and he really gets it," Owens said. "He watches what goes on. If you noticed in this race, the first run, we were mediocre. We made a few adjustments to the car, he made a few adjustments to his line, and just took off. That's just the difference. I think all the hype (built) in the media and everything is all true. He's a really exceptional guy behind the wheel. He gives me good feedback, and it's really easy for me to adjust on the car when he's driving. I think he's going to be a big name in the sport, for sure."
The next big step is winning, something Larson has done already this season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. On the Nationwide side, Larson has led two laps this season, including one at Daytona before his car flew into the catchfence. Owens believes the No. 32 team is getting closer to Victory Lane.
"I think so," he said. "By this point in the season, we wanted to be contending for some top-fives, and by late summer, the end of the year, we should be leading some laps and winning some races."
For his part, Larson is staying patient. "I wouldn't say I'm that close, because Kyle Busch is dominating," he said. "But we're getting closer each week. I'm glad to have two good finishes in a row, and hope to get another one at Dover."
For now, being the top-finishing Nationwide regular in a race like Saturday's is an accomplishment unto itself.
"Really, our goal the last few weeks is just to finish every lap," Larson said. "But to be the top Nationwide driver, you almost feel like you're winning the race. It's really cool to be in the middle of all the Cup guys in the race. I was battling with Joey and Kevin and Regan Smith quite a bit. Every Nationwide driver wants to be the best-finishing Nationwide driver at the end of the race, so to do that means a lot."
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