Hard day’s night: Larson punches ticket to next Playoff round with Darlington win

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 03: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 03, 2023 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kyle Larson is a runner up no more, and he’s punched his ticket to the next round of the Playoffs. The Hendrick Motorsports driver finally sealed the deal with a Southern 500 win at Darlington Raceway Sunday.

Larson had three consecutive second place finishes at the Track Too Tough to Tame from 2019 to 2021 and was leading the spring race this year when he was beaten by his Hendrick teammate William Byron on an overtime restart.

Sunday after running inside the top five much of the race, Larson finally took the lead during pit stops on the races fifth of eight cautions. On the restart Larson held off Tyler Reddick who led the second most laps on the day, 90, and went on to lead the final 55 laps through three more caution periods.

In the end Larson crossed the line .447 of a second ahead of Reddick.

“Yeah, finally from start to finish,” Larson said. “18th 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. “

For Reddick the disappointment of second place was palpable.

“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,” Reddick said.

“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.”

Chris Buescher was third, a career best Darlington finish, followed by Byron, with Ross Chastain rounding out the top five.

“We were trying,” Buscher said. “It was just we were all running the same groove trying to make speed and obviously playing other games there, too, and Byron was faster at the end and had to defend that a little bit.

“I don’t know, we tried to start on the front row, what, three times next to Larson, so we had our chance and got close when Brad (Keselowski) pushed us one of those restarts, and just the outside had the momentum for sure, and they were really good.”

For much of the race it appeared that Denny Hamlin would add a fifth Darlington win to his resume. After winning the Xfinity race on Saturday, Hamlin led a race high 177 laps sweeping the stages, including the first stage which ran caution free. But trouble in the pits doomed him and the possibility for the win.

Reddick cycled to the lead after a round of green flag stops that had started on lap 269 with Hamlin second. Shortly after the stops however, Hamlin reported a possible loose wheel and dove back into the pits under green. After a four-tire change, Hamlin came back out 30th one lap down. His team soon reported that none of the wheels appeared to have been loose, but the damage was done, and Hamlin finished 25th a lap down.

In his final race at Darlington Kevin Harvick threatened to score an upset win.  On lap 308 he was running second and catching Reddick who had been battling Ryan Newman, a lap down was trying to not lose another lap. On lap 309 Harvick dove to the pits just as Reddick slowed in front of Newman; Newman had to check up, spun and the pits closed just as the caution came out.

Unfortunately, Harvick decided to stop for service rather than roll through the pits and he was penalized. Harvick finished his final race at Darlington in 19th.

Several other Playoff drivers struggled including polesitter Christopher Bell who led 40 laps early and finished 8th in Stage 1. A meeting with the wall however, bent the toe link on his Toyota and he struggled to keep his earlier pace and had to settle for 23rd.  Martin Truex Jr. had issues in the pits with a loose wheel and never recovered while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suffered from a lack of speed as well as a pit road penalty. Stenhouse finished 16th, Truex 18th.

Michael McDowell had a pit road speeding penalty late in the race and was the only Playoff driver who failed to finish the race.

On lap 330, in a three wide battle, Kyle Busch got into Todd Gilliand coming out of Turn 4. Gilliland spun down the track tagging Hamlin and McDowell.  When Hamlin slowed, Bell got into him sending him spinning. All but McDowell were able to continue.

Brad Keselowski was sixth, Bubba Wallace overcame a spin for seventh, Chase Elliott was eighth, with Ryan Blaney ninth and last year’s Darlington winner Erik Jones rounding out the top 10.

The race also featured a bizarre stoppage for nearly 7 minutes when the track lights in Turns 3 and 4 didn’t come on. During the red flag electricians were able to make the repairs.

After scoring two wins earlier in the year, Larson now opens the Playoffs with a win at one of NASCAR’s Crown Jewel races.

“I’ve been pretty hard on myself here the last couple months but having a leader like Cliff (crew chief Daniels), he really is good for my mind,” Larson said.

“What a great way to start the playoffs and hopefully we can keep it going.”

The second round of the Playoffs will be at Kansas Speedway next Sunday. Bubba Wallace is the defending winner.

Race Results

Greg Engle