Kyle Larson earned this trophy the old-fashioned way. The driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led the most laps and swept both stage wins but still had to hold off a hard-charging, equally motivated Christopher Bell at the finish line to claim a dramatic victory in Sunday‘s South Point 400 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The 31-year-old Larson blocked the final charge by fellow Playoff driver Bell‘s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as the two cars approached the checkered flag. Larson ultimately positioned his Chevy in front to claim a .082-second win and most importantly, secure the first of four available positions in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 race at Phoenix in three weeks.
It was a compelling afternoon ushering in this final three-race, eight-driver round of Playoff competition to set up the four-driver title chase. There were seven race leaders and 20 lead changes. Larson held off the field on a re-start with 45 laps to go and never relinquished it despite quality challenges from Bell to close out the race and earlier, Roush Fenway Keselowski owner-driver Brad Keselowski, who led 38 laps himself.
Larson led seven times and accumulated the most laps led — 133 of 267 — on the afternoon to top the 1,000-laps led mark on the season — his 1,031 total laps out front in 2023, most in the series.
Not only did he have to hold off Bell, who made up half a second in the closing five laps to get to Larson‘s bumper, the 2021 series champ Larson survived a close call mid-race, his Chevy getting loose and out of control. But the former dirt race champion dramatically corrected and calmly carried on.
“Thankfully Christopher [Bell] always races extremely clean, it could have gotten crazier than it did coming to the start-finish line so “thank you” to him for racing with respect there,‘‘ Larson said. “What a job done by my team. Just a great race car.
“I almost gave it away there in Turn one and two. Got sideways and hit the wall and had to fight back from there. I was happy to pull away as much as we did and was hoping that would be enough to maintain, which it was. But I didn‘t think they‘d be able to get as close as they did at the end, so nerve-wracking.
“This is really cool to get to race for the championship in a few weeks and really glad I don‘t have to stress these next two races,‘‘ Larson continued.
Despite the impressive afternoon Bell, who started from pole position and led 61 laps now finds himself ranked fifth — two points below the four-driver cutoff line heading into next week‘s Playoff race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I don‘t know what else I could have done,‘‘ Bell said. “I feel like that was my moment, that was my moment to make the Final Four and didn‘t quite capture it. Coming to the checkers there, I knew he was going to be blocking so I‘m like I‘ll try to go high, and he went high. I don‘t even know if I had a run to get by him coming to the line. Just wasn‘t enough, but a great day. Great day for sure to get those stage points and a second place finish out of it. Puts us behind by two [points] so we‘re not out of it by any means, but would have been nice to lock in.‘‘
All eight of the remaining Playoff-eligible drivers finished among the Top 11.
The non-Playoff cars of Richard Childress Racing‘s Kyle Busch, RFK‘s Keselowski and Trackhouse Racing‘s Ross Chastain rounded out the top five behind Larson and Bell.
Playoff drivers, Team Penske‘s Ryan Blaney, Hendrick Motorsports‘ William Byron, 23XI Racing‘s Tyler Reddick, JGR‘s Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin and RFK‘s Chris Buescher finished sixth through 11th, respectively.
The race shook up the Playoff points. Beyond Larson‘s automatic bid, Byron still holds the championship lead in what is now more tightly-bunched standings. Byron‘s got nine points up on the regular season champion Truex, who leads his JGR teammate Hamlin by only two points — the same slim margin Hamlin has over fifth place Bell.
Reddick is 16 points below the Playoff line, followed by Blaney (-17) and Buescher (-23), whose 11th-place finish represented a decent rally for his car which ran 15th-20th place for much of the day.
Hendrick Motorsports executive — and NASCAR Hall of Famer driver Jeff Gordon — smiled when asked about Larson‘s day.
“I don‘t know where to begin,‘‘ Gordon said. “It certainly looked like they were the class or the field at one point, then Bell did then Keselowski did. Great race really.”
Asked if Larson was potentially as “good” as the 93-race winner Gordon had been when competing, the former four-time series champion said, “You take a guy like Kyle and his capabilities and his talent and he‘s impressed me with his work ethic too. I wasn‘t sure how he approached the Cup Series and [crew chief] Cliff [Daniels] and all the data that Cliff gives him in the meetings they have. .. it‘s a lot of information you have to absorb.
“But he‘s stepped up to the plate and done absolutely everything the organization has asked of him and then some. It‘s been a great relationship and this year has been all about getting the car and team to align.
“Seems like in the Playoffs they‘ve been bringing fast race cars and stepping up to the plate.”
The next race of this final three-race Playoff round to set the championship field is next Sunday‘s 4EVER400 Presented by Mobil 1 at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Larson is the defending race winner.
— NASCAR Wire Service —
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