Kyle Larson will be racing for another championship in Phoenix. Larson led a race high 133 laps in route to victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday holding off a hard charging Christopher Bell by .082 of a second for his fourth win of 2023 and his second at Vegas.
And while the stats show domination, Larson swept the Stages in addition to leading the most laps, the win was far from guaranteed.
On lap 141 while running third Larson slid coming out of Turn 2 tagging the outside wall and drifting sideways before correcting his Chevy and continuing. Larson recovered and was back in the lead by lap 155 holding the lead until the end of Stage 2.
“Honestly, I was thinking I was just going to spin, then hit the inside wall,” Larson said. “About that time I clipped the outside wall, got lucky. Was just thinking that I was going to do it again because now my right rear tire was scorched. I was so loose for the next however many laps before the caution came out.”
The race had five cautions for incidents, and on the sixth caution for a spin from Chase Briscoe on lap 211, Larson’s crew performed a flawless pit stop that put Larson back in the lead. He held that lead for all but 1 lap including the races seventh and final caution on lap 218 for Ty Gibbs who had a loose tire come off.
In the closing laps Bell cut the deficit down giving Larson some concern, though he wasn’t worried about any last lap drama.
“I could see him coming in my mirror, for sure,” Larson said. “Was hoping those lappers were going to give me the bottom. The 38 peeled off to the bottom. I knew I couldn’t follow him. I just didn’t want to go all the way to the top, leave the middle open.
“Thankfully Christopher always races extremely clean. Could have got crazier than it did coming to the start/finish line. Thank you to him for racing with respect there.”
For Bell, the race was a must win for him. He came in seventh in the standings and below the cutline.
“I mean, I don’t know what else I could have done, so… Very I don’t know,” Bell said. “I feel like that was my moment. That was my moment to make the Final Four. Didn’t quite capture it.
“I don’t know. Coming to the checkered there, I knew that he was going to be blocking, so I’m like I’m going to try to go high. He went high. I don’t even know if I had a run to get by him there coming to the line. Just wasn’t enough.”
Despite starting from pole, leading the second most laps on the day, 61, and a final charge toward the front he came up short and leaves Vegas fifth in the standings two points below the cutoff.
“A great day, great day for sure to get the stage points, get a second place finish out of it,” said Bell who finished second and third respectively in the Stages. “I think I saw we’re minus two, so we’re not out of it by any means. It would have been nice to lock it in.”
Kyle Busch was third with Brad Keselowski who led 38 laps fourth. Ross Chastain overcame a pit road speeding penalty to round out the top five.
In post-race inspection Ryan Blaney’s car failed and was disqualified for a left front shock absorber that NASCAR said didn’t meet the overall specified length outlined in NASCAR Rule Book number 18.104.22.168. Blaney originally finished sixth but with the DQ all the finishers behind him were moved up one spot.
Then late Monday, NASCAR reversed its decision on the DQ and restored Blaney’s finishing position issuing a statement:
“After further review of the inspection process throughout this weekend’s events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, NASCAR has rescinded the No. 12 disqualification penalty.
“Monday morning during its race weekend debrief, NASCAR discovered an issue with the damper template used for inspection.
NASCAR then conducted a detailed investigation and has restored the No. 12’s stage and race finishing positions from Sunday.
NASCAR has taken internal steps to remedy this issue moving forward.”
After Blaney’s sixth place spot was restored, William Byron was seventh, Tyler Reddick eighth.
Martin Truex Jr. struggled all day long thanks in part to a pit call that left him out for track position early in the race. He rallied to originally finish ninth and stay fourth in the points and above the cutline. Denny Hamlin was 10th. With the restored positions, Chris Buescher was the only Playoff driver to finish outside the top 10, finishing 11th.
Reddick is still behind Bell in the standings and outside the Championship 4 as is Blaney. Buescher falls to eighth in the standings after starting the day fifth.
With Blaney once again credited with sixth-place points, and the eight points he had earned at the two stage breaks were also restored. The reversal moves Blaney from last place among the eight remaining title-eligible drivers to seventh, trimming his deficit relative to the provisional elimination line from 56 to 17 points.
Hendrick Motorsports has now won the opening races of the first two rounds of the 2023 Playoffs; Byron won at Darlington, and now Larson at Vegas. Though Sunday’s victory for the 2021 champion wasn’t an easy one.
“I almost gave it away there in one and two, getting sideways, hitting into the wall,” Larson said. “Had to fight back there with our balance. They got it much closer there in the lead.
“I was happy to pull away as much as we did. Was hoping that was going to be enough to maintain, which it was. I thought they weren’t going to be able to get as close as they did there at the end. Nerve-wracking.”
Larson’s nerves will no doubt be calmer as the series heads to the second race in the round of 4 at Homestead, where Larson is the defending winner. Being locked into the Final 4 for the championship race at Phoenix and being the defending winner of the race at Homestead doesn’t mean that Larson will take any time to relax, or look too far ahead.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself going to Homestead,” he said. “I want to have a great run there. I want to dominate honestly. I want to win both stages by 15 seconds and win the race by 30 (smiling). That’s my goal.
“I’m not thinking really ahead of Homestead yet. Martinsville, as well. I want to go there and have another good run like we had earlier this year, go into Phoenix with a lot of confidence and momentum. I think if tomorrow I start worrying about Phoenix, then had two bad runs at Homestead and Martinsville, I think that would kill our momentum and confidence for Phoenix.
Just put a lot of pressure on myself and our team to not get complacent, and treat every race like it means something. ”
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