AP photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez / Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson celebrates after winning Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

FONTANA, Calif. — Kyle Larson avoided any wipeouts and found his way to victory lane for the first time this year.

The reigning Cup Series champion held off Austin Dillon and Daniel Suarez in a tense finish Sunday to win at Auto Club Speedway for the second time in his career on NASCAR's top circuit.

After starting at the rear under penalty, Larson raced to his 17th career victory and the 11th in his year-plus competing for Hendrick Motorsports. He added another famed surfboard trophy to his 2017 award, but only after clinging to the lead through an exciting finish in the first race on an intermediate track for NASCAR's Next Gen car.

Larson's No. 5 Chevrolet was up front for 28 of 200 laps.

"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."

The 2022 Cup Series season opened just one week earlier at the Daytona 500, where he started in pole position before crashing out late in the race, but Larson competes in dirt track races during the week and surprisingly hadn't won anywhere in the new year. The Northern California native's drought ended in an entertaining race featuring ample passing, plenty of mistakes and thrilling top-to-bottom moves on the seasoned track wide enough for five cars.

some text
AP photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez / Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson (5) leads the field under caution during Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Larson had victory in sight with eight laps to go when teammate Chase Elliott spun and forced a race-record 12th caution. Several laps earlier, Elliott had been 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 was second for Richard Childress Racing, and Trackhouse Racing's Suarez slipped to fourth behind Erik Jones of Petty GMS Motorsports 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.

Tyler Reddick won the first two stages and led 90 laps — more than the RCR driver had led in his entire Cup Series career combined — but his race fell apart from the lead with 48 laps to go. He got a flat tire shortly before William Byron got loose and ran him into wall, ending Byron's day. Reddick returned and finished 24th.

some text
AP photo by Steve Nesius / Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin competes in IndyCar's season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday in Florida.

IndyCar gets rolling

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Scott McLaughlin at last showed his long move from Australia to the United States was worth the gamble, securing his first IndyCar career win in the season opener on the downtown streets of St. Petersburg.

Now the 28-year-old New Zealander will have to see how far it takes him: IndyCar's opening winner has gone on to be the American open-wheel series' season champion the past three years.

"Oh, mate, I don't know. Let's keep it low key," McLaughlin said about his title chances. "Let's be the underdog for a little while longer."

A three-time Australian V8 Supercars champion, McLaughlin had a difficult rookie season in 2021 but broke through in a big way Sunday, when he started in pole position and led 49 of 100 laps.

He had to hold off reigning series champion Alex Palou over the last few to secure the victory. McLaughlin was held up by rookie Devlin DeFrancesco, the last car on the lead lap, on the final trip around the track. That gave Palou the chance to take one look at a pass for the lead, but he couldn't get close enough.

"It was really, really close, but I don't think we had the pace he had," said Palou, who finished second for Chip Ganassi Racing and Honda.

Will Power, who started alongside fellow Team Penske driver McLaughlin on the front row, was third to put a pair of Chevrolets on the podium. Honda driver Colton Herta was fourth and followed by teammate Romain Grosjean in his debut for Andretti Autosport.

McLaughlin was greeted with a hug from team owner Roger Penske, who just one week earlier celebrated his 85th birthday with Austin Cindric's win in the Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series season opener.

The driver also made a video call back home. The coronavirus pandemic has kept McLaughlin from his family for two years, and they've yet to see him race in his new series.

"I miss my mom and dad dearly, wish you guys were here," he said into NBC's live camera.

IndyCar's next race is March 20 at Texas Motor Speedway, the first oval of the year.