Hornish 17th in fill-in role

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FONTANA, Calif. (AP) -- Kyle Larson won his first Nationwide Series race Saturday, holding off Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch in a thrilling finish at Fontana.

The 21-year-old Larson became the first California native to win a Nationwide race at the 2-mile oval, surviving a three-man derby in the final laps that had the fans on their feet.

Meanwhile, Sam Hornish Jr. made his season debut on the track, filling in for Denny Hamlin. The Defiance native finished 17th.

After Harvick's final attempt to pass him failed, Larson celebrated with a burnout in Victory Lane, but only after detaching his steering wheel and holding it out the window.

"Those last 11, 12 laps were the longest laps of my life," Larson said. "I've been so close to winning so many times, but the fashion we did it in was extra special."

One of NASCAR's most promising young drivers, Larson is from Elk Grove, Calif., near Sacramento. After being named Nationwide's top rookie last season, he's driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Sprint Cup series.

Harvick finished just 0.342 seconds behind after barely missing on repeated attempts to slip underneath Larson's Chevy for the lead.

"We had a lot of fun there at the end, obviously," Harvick said. "You'd rather win the race, but any time you can put on a show like that for the fans, you're excited about that."

Larson had finished second in five previous Nationwide races, but never won. Busch held him off at Bristol last week, and Larson was beginning to wonder when he would get his breakthrough win.

Busch, the defending champion at Fontana after last year's weekend sweep, started 39th after missing qualifying with car problems. He roared through the field to take the lead before coming up just short in the big finish.

"He deserved it," Busch said after congratulating Larson in Victory Lane. "He's worked hard, and that's why he's in Cup."

Joey Logano was fourth after leading 96 laps early on, and Elliott Sadler finished fifth.

After a caution for fuel on the track, a green flag with 16 laps to go kicked off a wild scramble for the lead. Larson got out front, while Busch swerved in front of Harvick for second.

Larson and Busch dueled for the next few laps, trading the lead. Harvick soon joined the hunt, and Busch stayed in the group despite scraping the wall with seven laps to go.

Busch nudged back in front by a bumper with five laps to go, but Larson cut in front moments later to push Busch back. Harvick repeatedly drove down hard into the turns in an effort to get in front, but Larson barely held him off.

Hornish steps in

FONTANA, Calif. -- Denny Hamlin missed Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway with a sinus infection that led to vision problems.

Hamlin was ruled out of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota about 30 minutes before the green flag at the track where he crashed on the final lap of last year's race.

"It's not just a headache. It's a lot more serious than that. He was actually losing vision his eye," crew chief Darian Grubb told MRN.com and NASCAR.com after Sunday's race.

Hamlin was released from a hospital after the race ended. He will be evaluated again in the next week back home in Charlotte.

Sam Hornish Jr. finished 17th as the late replacement in the No. 11 car for Hamlin, who had hoped for redemption at Fontana after leaving being airlifted away from the track with a broken vertebra last year.

"So disappointed that I can't compete today," Hamlin said in a post on his Twitter account. "Sorry to all my fans. Thought we had a car that could win today."

Hamlin was not medically cleared by a NASCAR doctor to race and was told to go to the hospital, team President J.D. Gibbs said.

Although team owner Joe Gibbs said after the race Hamlin was still undergoing tests and he didn't know when they'd have results, Grubb told the two media outlets after the race that Hamlin was still hospitalized.

"The last I'd heard, his vision was getting worse and the pain was getting worse," Grubb told the two media outlets. "It got to where he couldn't see and was having trouble with the vision in his left eye because of the pressure and everything that was going on. At that point, NASCAR did some testing and he could not follow the finger going by his eyes as he should have been.

"They weren't going to let him go."

Hamlin wore dark sunglasses in the indoor driver meeting two hours before the race.

"He held his head and said his head was hurting so bad. He was having trouble seeing," Grubb said. "You could tell the worry in his face, he was really upset."

Hornish is scheduled to drive seven races for Joe Gibbs Racing this season in the Nationwide Series, but he was on hand at Fontana as Matt Kenseth's standby driver as Kenseth awaits the birth of his fourth child.

Hornish and Hamlin are both roughly 6 feet tall, so few adjustments had to be made for the seat or pedals in Hamlin's car. Grubb said the team had no time to change the seat for Hornish, who started last in the No. 11 Toyota and finished 17th.

Hamlin's scratch was a huge disappointment at Fontana for the second straight year.

Hamlin and Logano, his former teammate and unfriendly rival, were racing for the lead down the backstretch on the last lap last year when they collided, sending Hamlin hard into the inside wall. Hamlin got out of his car and collapsed onto the asphalt, and was eventually airlifted to the hospital due to traffic.

Hamlin missed most of five races with a broken vertebra, and the injury left him in back pain for months. After an offseason recovery from his back woes, he had hoped to get back to full strength along with his team this season.

Hamlin was seventh in the points standings headed into Sunday's race and dropped to 11th after sitting out. Drivers can still qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship so long as they qualify their car -- as Hamlin did on Friday -- or race in every one of the first 26 races.

Either way, Hamlin would receive a medical exemption from NASCAR since he was not cleared to drive by a doctor.

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