Kyle Larson kicks off NASCAR Playoffs in style, captures first Southern 500 to advance to Round of 12
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Monday, September 4, 2023
Photo Credit: NBC Sports
Since Kyle Larson’s dominant 2021 season that saw him capture his first NASCAR Cup Series championship, there has been little to celebrate.
That doesn’t mean he and the No. 5 team have been bad by any stretch. Through Larson’s and Cliff Daniels’ three years together, they have consistently run up front and contended for wins. The speed has been there - the luck has not.
Since the 2021 finale in Phoenix, Larson had scored just five wins in 62 races. While that is good for most drivers, it is below expectation for a former champion in the prime of his career, luck or not.
After scoring both of his two race wins early in the year, and stumbling into the playoffs this season, many had their doubts on whether Larson could contend for the title again this season.
Following Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington, that all changed.
Starting towards the back, Larson made his way into the top five by the end of Stage 1, stayed up there all night despite his car weirdly going into neutral several times early in the third Stage, and capitalised on Denny Hamlin’s loose wheel misfortune to punch his ticket to the Round of 12.
Sunday’s race was not only Larson’s third win of the season, but also his first Southern 500 victory, and his first at Darlington, a track he loves so dearly. The win makes him the first, and only driver to be primed for the second round of NASCAR’s postseason.
Getting hot at the right time is not anything new for Larson, or crew chief Cliff Daniels, though. After all, Daniels worked alongside Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson for their seventh championship in 2016, where Johnson famously had a below par season, only to win three of the final six races to clinch the title.
With the relative struggles and bad luck that the entire No. 5 team has had this season despite what was still a decent regular season, Larson scoring a win in the first race with a new, clean slate is not a good sign for the competition.
Finishing second was Tyler Reddick, who ran in the top five all night, and looked set to take the win after Hamlin’s aforementioned issues, before Larson stole it from him on the restart with under 50 to go.
Given how up and down Reddick’s season has been, especially with regards to mistakes on pit road, this was still a solid result to kick off the playoffs.
Finishing third was Chris Buescher, who continued his streak of being the hottest driver in the Cup Series with another top five. He came home ahead of wins-leader William Byron in fourth, Ross Chastain in fifth, and Brad Keselowski in sixth.
Keselowski rebounded from a mistake that saw him slide through his pit box in the Stage 2 break to make it a double top six for RFK with Buescher up ahead.
Bubba Wallace Jr, who made the playoffs for the first time, recovered from a spin off Turn 4 at the end of Stage 1 to finish seventh. Behind him was Chase Elliott in eighth, Ryan Blaney in ninth, and last year’s Southern 500 winner Erik Jones in tenth.
Closely behind him were playoff drivers Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who both had hard contact with the wall at different points in the night, and in Logano’s case, fell a lap down with a bent toe link before recovering to 12th.
As for the other playoff drivers, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has the longest odds to win the Cup Series championship according to FanDuel, finished a respectable 16th for JTG Daugherty, while Martin Truex Jr. ended 18th after recovering from a loose wheel that saw him get lapped.
Kevin Harvick came home behind him in 19th, after he was sent to the rear, while in contention for the win, for pitting during Ryan Newman’s spin which activated the yellow caution light to close the pits.
It was a heartbreaking loss for Harvick in his final Southern 500, as he remains winless in his retirement season. Pole sitter Christopher Bell finished 23rd after he smacked the wall on multiple occasions and irreparably bent a toe link as well.
However, he still finished ahead of teammate Hamlin, who despite leading a race-high 160+ laps, gave up the lead in Stage 3 with a loose wheel, and then was taken out in a pileup with Michael McDowell and Todd Gillilland while trying to get his lap back. Luckily for the No. 11 team, his solid regular season gave him enough points to stay comfortably above the cut line… for now.
With the wreck, McDowell ended last of all the playoff drivers with a DNF, and a 32nd place finish.
Next weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs head to Kansas Speedway for the second of three races in the Round of 16. Hamlin and Larson tangled there for the win earlier this year, as they did in Pocono later on. Should the two of them be in that situation again, don’t expect Larson to let Hamlin have an easy advancement to the Round of 12.
Kyle Larson (advanced)
William Byron (+45)
Tyler Reddick (+30)
Chris Buescher (+27)
Denny Hamlin (+27)
Martin Truex Jr. (+25)
Kyle Busch (+20)
Brad Keselowski (+18)
Ryan Blaney (+16)
Ross Chastain (+13)
Joey Logano (+3)
Christopher Bell (+1)
Bubba Wallace (-1)
Kevin Harvick (-2)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-4)
Michael McDowell (-19)