Welcome back, Kyle Larson.
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion held off a desperate charge from fellow playoff driver Tyler Reddick at sold-out Darlington Raceway to claim victory in Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500 and earn an automatic berth in the Round of 12.
Larson entered the playoff opener with an undistinguished average finish of 17.5 in his previous six races, but he weathered a transmission momentary stuck in neutral and a disconcerting brush with the wall to register his third victory of the season, the 22nd of his career and his first at the famed “Lady in Black.”
“Yeah, finally from start to finish,” Larson said of his ability to put together a complete race. “Eighteenth to third in the first stage, I didn’t think that was possible. Our race car was really good when the sun was out. Just had to work on it.
“I messed up once and it got hung in neutral, and I slid and hit the wall, and I think bent the toe link a little bit, so it was kind of a struggle from there. Definitely had to fight it more than I was earlier, but we kept our heads in the game. That was really important. This race is all about keeping your head in it…
“What a great way to start the playoffs, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Larson took the lead for the first time during a quick pit stop on lap 313 and held it for the final 55 circuits. Reddick rolled off pit road second but couldn’t find a way past the race winner.
“Kyle and I were pretty close the majority of the day, honestly, and he just got ahead of us there on pit road, but all in all, this is the day that we needed to have,” said Reddick, who led 90 laps and crossed the finish line .447 seconds behind Larson.
“Really just thankful for the hard work from my pit crew, from the team, everyone at the shop. Days like this, with a car like this, we haven’t been able to get a second-place finish out of it, so really glad we were able to do that, and it was a really good points day on top of that, as well.”
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Chris Buescher ran a mistake-free race and finished third, followed by William Byron, who charged forward from his 23rd starting position. Ross Chastain placed fifth, with Brad Keselowski and Bubba Wallace behind him, as playoff drivers claimed the top seven positions.
While Larson leaves Darlington with guaranteed admission to the Round of 12, Byron, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, leads the playoff standings by one point — over Larson. Reddick is 15 points behind Byron, followed by Buescher and Denny Hamlin, who trail by 18 points.
Catastrophes proved the undoing of several playoff drivers who showed excellent speed but succumbed to a variety of pit road mistakes and errors in judgment.
Hamlin led 177 laps, swept the first and second stages and dominated the race — until he made an extra green-flag pit stop on lap 274, believing he had a loose wheel. Hamlin lost a lap and any chance he had of starting the playoffs with a victory. Hamlin’s night got worse when he was collected in a five-car wreck on lap 330. He finished 25th.
After Hamlin’s demise, Kevin Harvick was chasing Reddick for the lead. Harvick steered his car toward pit road on lap 309, causing Reddick to check up in front of Ryan Newman in an attempt to duplicate Harvick’s maneuver. Newman spun in Turn 4, causing the sixth caution, and the red light indicating a closed pit road caught Harvick just before he reached the entry line. The resulting penalty sent Harvick to the back of the field for a restart on lap 317, with no time to recovered past 19th.
A driver with no margin for error entering the Round of 16, Michael McDowell didn’t have the speed to stay on the lead lap, but his Waterloo came in the same lap 330 wreck that involved Hamlin and fellow playoff driver and pole winner Christopher Bell. McDowell’s No. 34 Ford was too badly hurt to continue, and he fell out of the race in 32nd place.
McDowell heads to next Sunday’s playoff race at Kansas Speedway in 16th place, 19 points behind Bell in 12th.
Late in the first stage, Bell slammed the outside wall and damaged the suspension on his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, ruining any chances of victory.
“I just got in the marbles and fenced it hard,” Bell radioed to his team.
After the stage break, Bell dropped precipitously through the field and was soon lapped by leader Denny Hamlin.
“The toe is messed up — I’m having to turn the wheel a lot,” Bell radioed to crew chief Adam Stevens.
Bell, who finished a lap down in 23rd, wasn’t the only playoff driver who fell victim to mistakes in the first stage, which ran under the green flag from start to finish. Joey Logano scraped the wall at the apex of Turns 3 and 4 on lap 86.
His No. 22 Ford bit the wall again on lap 115 — the final circuit of Stage 1 — when the No. 23 Toyota of Wallace spun underneath him in Turn 4 and knocked the right rear of Logano’s car into the fence, after Hamlin had taken the green/checkered flag to win the stage and the accompanying Playoff point.
Martin Truex Jr. (who finished 18th) lost four spots after brushing the wall late in the stage and ran 17th in the first segment. Truex’s problems multiplied in Stage 2 when he had to make an unscheduled pit stop because of a loose wheel and lost two laps.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16th) lost a lap serving a pass-through penalty for speeding on pit road during his first green-flag pit stop, as mistakes began to shape the playoffs — as they invariably do.