DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Kyle Larson had led plenty of laps around Darlington through the years, just not the last one. He finally accomplished that Sunday with victory at the Southern 500.
Larson, the 2021 Cup Series champion, came into this event having been in front for 715 career laps at the track “Too Tough To Tame” without taking the checkered flag.
“This is a track I really enjoy, suits my style,” Larson said. “I just hadn't won yet. Was good to do it today.”
Especially because it puts his No. 5 Chevrolet into the second round of the NASCAR playoffs no matter where he finishes at the two remaining first-round races at Kansas and Bristol the next two weeks.
Larson led the final 55 laps for his first career win at Darlington.
“Adding this trophy to the collection is amazing,” Larson continued. “This is one of three or four crown jewels.”
Larson didn't have the fastest car at the Southern 500, just one that got out front at the right time while other contenders fell away.
Denny Hamlin led a race-best 177 of 367 laps and looked headed for the win before he felt vibrations for what he told his crew was a loose wheel and had to pit on consecutive laps.
“We controlled the race until we had some trouble,” said Hamlin, who won the first two stages. “That's just part of it.”
Tyler Reddick led 90 laps, yet lost the lead to Larson coming off pit road. Kevin Harvick, seeking the first victory of his final season, challenged Harvick for the lead with less than 60 laps remaining, but was penalized when he could not avoid entering the pits moments after they were closed by NASCAR after a caution came out.
Harvick was penalized and couldn't recover. He said he didn’t have time to get back on the track before the commitment line.
It was a successful run at the track for Larson after several close calls. He has had three seconds and two thirds in his 11 previous Cup Series races at Darlington. In May, Larson was racing for the lead late when he was hit by Ross Chastain and wound up 20th.
“This has been one of my favorite tracks my whole career,” Larson said. “Been really, really fast here my whole career, just usually in the wall.”
The victory was also the 299th all-time for Hendrick Motorsports and the 500th motorsports win for the Hendrick engine program.
Larson won for the third time this season and took his eighth race in seven playoff appearances.
Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Larson's No. 5 Chevrolet, said he and his driver have dealt with lots of Darlington heartbreak through the years and were glad to end that.
“This track and this race has been circled on our calendar for a long time,” Daniels said.
Playoff drivers took the first seven spots. Tyler Reddick was second, followed by Chris Buescher, William Byron, Chastain, Brad Keselowski and Bubba Wallace.
Harvick ended 19th and Hamlin 25th. The rest of the playoff field was Kyle Busch in 11th, Joey Logano in 12th, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 16th, Martin Truex Jr. in 18th, pole-sitter Christopher Bell in 23rd and Michael McDowell in 32nd.
The point standings have Bell as 12th on the playoff grid on the second-round playoff bubble. Those drivers on the outside of the next round after this week are Wallace, Harvick, Stenhouse and McDowell.
Byron, Larson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate and co-top seed with Truex, entered with a series-best five victories this year and was glad with the high finish.
“I think this is a good stepping stone for Kansas and good to get a solid first race in the playoffs,” he said.
Ryan Preece, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver who endured a frightening crash at Daytona last week yet walked away largely unharmed, finished 28th at Darlington in his return to Cup racing.
Darlington fans, drivers and personnel said goodbye to track president Kerry Tharp, who announced his retirement after nearly two decades with NASCAR earlier this summer. Signs celebrating Tharp's eight-year tenure in charge of Darlington were both inside and outside the facility. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also awarded Tharp the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor governors can give.
NASCAR halted the race for seven minutes at Darlington Raceway when some lights in turn three and four would not come on as the event moved from day to night. A caution came out when teams noticed the lights off and NASCAR tried to fix the problem under caution. Fans at the sold-out venue cheered when the lights came on and cars were soon rolling again. The problem came from a transfer switch that was not getting enough voltage to fire. The issue did not present itself during the track's lighting test before race weekend.
The second of opening-round three races in the NASCAR playoffs takes place at Kansas Speedway on Sept. 10. Wallace took this event a year ago, while Denny Hamlin won there in May.
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing