NASCAR: Denny Hamlin hits the jackpot via playoff win in Vegas

Hamlin led the final 39 laps to secure not only his first win at Las Vegas but advancement to the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs’ Round of 8.

With the wild cards of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval looming, Denny Hamlin found stability and fortune in Las Vegas, of all places.

Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led 137 of the 267 laps of the NASCAR Cup Series’ South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday night, earning his first career win in 20 starts in Sin City. The No. 11 team now earns automatic advancement to the third round of the Cup Series playoffs, which will slice the field from 12 to eight drivers en route to the four-car final at Phoenix.

Vegas yielded Hamlin’s second win of the season and the 46th of his career, tying him for 14th-most all-time with NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker. His first at Darlington, earned three weeks prior, allowed him to advance to the ongoing Round of 12. Hamlin is seeking an elusive Cup Series title to round off an accomplished NASCAR resume.

Hamlin held off a late challenge from defending series champion Chase Elliott to win the race by a 0.442-second margin. His JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. finished third and fourth while another playoff driver, Ryan Blaney, rounded out the top five.

Hamlin It Up

His lack of a Cup Series championship aside, Hamlin has hoisted nearly every kind of trophy there is to raise in a career dating back to 2004.

Las Vegas, however, often presented a challenge for Hamlin. The renowned driver was a bit of a bore in The Entertainment Capital of the World, earning nine top-ten finishes in 19 prior starts entering Sunday night’s event.

Hamlin made it clear that Sunday night would be a different story right from the get-go: he took the lead from Blaney eight laps in and held for the next 37 circuits. He soon had to deal with the titans of Hendrick Motorsports, namely Elliott and Kyle Larson. The latter won the first of two 81-lap stages, but differing pit strategies allowed Hamlin to take advantage in the latter.

A strong pit top allowed Hamlin to retain the lead after stage two, first holding off a challenge from eliminated playoff driver Tyler Reddick before the last cycle of green flag pit stops. Hamlin emerged with a healthy lead before lapped traffic let Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet close in. It wasn’t enough as Hamlin took home his first win in Nevada.

“It’s another track we can cross off the list. There was a point here where I never thought I would even sniff a victory,” Hamlin said of winning in Las Vegas. ”

“The team has found a setup that has worked with my driving style,” Hamlin said afterward. “I know that me and (crew chief Chris Gabehart) really work hard on trying to shore up any deficiencies that we have or I have as a driver go to work on it, the team goes to work on what they need to give me to go fast. I try to give them the best information that I can. They take that information, they put their brains together and they come up with something that works.”

Hamlin held the regular season points lead for a majority of the year but lost out to Larson thanks to a lack of wins. With two triumphs in the last four events, some might believe that Hamlin may have reclaimed the title of the favorite.

But Hamlin was in no mood to play games of hypotheticals and predictions. As someone who has prided himself solely on results…having worked amongst the championship four in each of the last three seasons…Hamlin is focused only on reality.

“I don’t care. Nothing matters. You have to play the game,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who’s the favorite. You have to play.”

Chase leads Hendrick’s Chase

Hendrick Motorsports vehicles went a roller-coaster evening rife with emotions and wagers that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the many nearby casinos. Larson’s decision to stay out toward the end of the second stage ended his prospects of victory, though he was able to race back to 10th.

Fellow HMS drivers William Byron and Alex Bowman weren’t so lucky. Byron started from the rear of the field after his No. 24 Chevrolet failed inspection twice. He raced his way toward the front of the field and even took the lead from Larson at lap 92. Alas, he was forced to make two pit stops over the final 50 laps due to a flat tire while running fifth with 42 laps to go. Bowman’s No. 48 likewise had to make a late pit stop due to a punctured tire, doing so 13 laps before Byron.

Byron finished 18th and sits four points behind Brad Keselowski for the final advancing spot. Bowman came home 22nd and is 13 points behind the cutoff.

Elliott, on the other hand, managed to finish second and sliced into a healthy Hamlin need by successfully navigating through lapped cars. Unlike Larson, Elliott was able to get around the leader Hamlin to remain on the lead lap at the end of the second stage. The defending series champion believed that made the difference in ending the day on a high note.

“Circumstances kind of went our way. We were able to get back on the lead lap when that cycle stopped. We were there in the middle with those guys making it on fuel,” Elliott said. “We were on the fortunate end because we got back on the lead lap, didn’t have to wave or get the Lucky Dog.”

8er’s gonna 8

Hamlin’s biggest competition in the early portions of the final stage was Reddick, who missed out on an invitation to the Round of 12 by two points at Bristol last weekend. The No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet hounded Hamlin for the first half of the final 107-lap segment before he lost track position in lapped traffic. Delaying his final green flag pit stop came back to haunt Reddick in the end, as he faded from contention shortly after. He was nonetheless the best finisher amongst the non-playoff contenders and one of two in the top ten (the other being Kurt Busch in 8th).

“I think at worst we were a third-place car and should have been competing for the win at the end,” Reddick said, per Chris Estrada of NBC Sports. “There weren’t a ton of cautions during the race and unfortunately waiting just a couple of laps from when (Denny Hamlin) pitted from the lead cost us valuable track position. A sixth-place finish is still a great night for our Richard Childress Racing team and we will now turn our focus to Talladega.”

Gase sent to hospital after hard wreck

The only yellow flag for an on-track incident came at lap 93, when Joey Gase’s No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet completely lost a left rear tire. Gase endured a heavy impact with the wall in Turn 2, ending his night early. He was transferred to a local hospital and has since been evaluated and released. Gase will undergo further tests in Charlotte. Sunday marked his 11th race in an RWR vehicle this season.

What’s Next

Unpredictability reigns over the next two playoff races. Before the Round of 12 wraps at Charlotte’s part-oval, part-road course, 188 laps lie ahead at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Nothing more needs to be said about Talladega’s propensity for huge wrecks and tightly packed racing, traits that have made it the perfect site for the halfway mark of the playoffs.

Only Hamlin will venture to Alabama with a sense of safety and security: not only did his win at Las Vegas reserve his spot into the semifinals but he’s the defending winner of Talladega’s fall event.

“From my standpoint, it’s a free pass to go there and try to lead every lap, win the race,” Hamlin said of his strategy for Talladega and Charlotte. “I’m still professional. I still want to go out there and win the next two weeks. There is no reason for us to take any weeks off. We don’t take any weeks off. We were battling for the regular-season championship for the last 10 weeks of the regular season. We’ve been in Playoff mode for quite a while now. I’m more looking forward to it now than worrying about all the what-ifs of what can happen that can take you out.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Kyle Larson wins at Las Vegas in fourth race back

It took only four Cup Series races for Kyle Larson to pilot Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet back into victory lane.

Hendrick Motorsports ruled the NASCAR Cup Series for the second consecutive weekend, as Kyle Larson put an exclamation point on his return to the circuit with a win in the Pennzoil 400 presented by JiffyLube at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Larson, driver of HMS’ No. 5 Chevrolet, earned his seventh career Cup victory and his first since he missed a majority of the 2020 campaign due to a suspension and firing from the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Larson led all but 12 of the final 61 laps en route to victory, besting the No. 2 Team Penske Ford of Brad Keselowski by over three seconds. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin came home behind them, while Keselowski’s teammate Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five.

Larson has gotten off to a strong start with HMS since he was chosen to represent the resurrection of the No. 5 branding. Through four races, Larson is one of four drivers to earn top ten finishes in three of the first four races. The hot start has been earned alongside crew chief Cliff Daniels, who celebrated his first win as a NASCAR pit boss. Daniels previously served as the crew chief for seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s bittersweet final season in the No. 48 (now driven by Alex Bowman) last year.

HMS as a whole has been clicking on all cylinders in recent NASCAR history. Chase Elliott took home last season’s Cup Series title by winning the final two races in November, while William Byron dominated the final stanzas of last weekend’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Larson’s win marked the 265th trophy the team ledgers, putting them two behind Petty Enterprises for the most in Cup Series history. Elliott’s triumph last fall was the 13th championship in team history, one of which was earned through Terry Labonte’s 1996 endeavors in the No. 5 Larson pilots today.

Hendrick’s Chevrolets dominated the early portions of Sunday’s race in Sin City. Byron, Elliott, and Larson united to lead the first 30 laps, their transitions among the first of 27 lead changes (second-most in Las Vegas history). Keselowski and his Penske group threatened to spoil the celebration, passing Larson on the penultimate lap of the first 80-lap stage to capture the early victory. Larson and Keselowski would mostly battle for the lead from there one out, with the former capturing the other 80-lap stage. During the last 107-circuit segment, Keselowski shaved seconds off his deficit when Larson lost speed through a botched pit road entry.

But a strong stop from Daniels’ No. 5 crew allowed Larson to leave in front of Keselowski’s No. 2. He would re-establish his lead from there on out, capturing the win by over three seconds. Larson is the fourth different winner over the first four races this season, joining Byron, Michael McDowell, and Christopher Bell. HMS earned consecutive wins through different drivers for the first time since 2015, when Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Adding to the sense of HMS lore on Sunday was the fact that Larson won in a car emulating the NASCAR Busch Series paint scheme of Hendrick’s late son Ricky, who held a variety of roles with the team. Ricky tragically perished, along with nine others, in 2004 in a plane crash en route to Martinsville Speedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday to the site of November’s season finale, Phoenix Raceway, for the Instacart 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Larson is the quickest driver to earn a win in a Hendrick Motorsports car, doing so in his fourth start. The record was previously held by Labonte, who won in his seventh start in the No. 5 (North Wilkesboro, 1994).

 

  • McDowell (17th) and Kevin Harvick (20th) each saw their personal streak of top-ten finishes end.

 

  • In other HMS endeavors, Elliott overcame damage in the jack area and a spin to finish 13th. Byron earned a top-ten finish (8th), but late issues for Bowman relegated him to 27th.

 

  • Corey LaJoie (rear end) and Aric Almirola (accident) each failed to finish

 

  • Erik Jones (10th) earned his first top ten of the season, as well as his first with Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 Chevrolet

 

  • Larson’s win was the first for Hendrick Motorsports at Las Vegas since the last Jimmie Johnson’s four victories at the track in 2010. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon also won the 2001 event.

 

  • Joey Logano, winner of the last two early Vegas events in Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford, finished 9th.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kurt Busch finally hits the jackpot at hometown Las Vegas

Vegas fortune smiled upon hometown racer Kurt Busch, whose first victory in Sin City moved him into the NASCAR Cup Series semifinals.

Racing at his hometown track of Las Vegas, Kurt Busch experienced a streak of good luck during the South Point 400’s latter stages. Like any good player, Busch knew when to walk…or, in this case, drive…away.

Busch’s No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet led the final 26 laps of Sunday night’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Sin City native earned the first win at his hometown track in 22 starts and clinched a berth in the upcoming Round of 8, which will begin on October 18 at Kansas after the next two races at Talladega and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course. It’s good for Busch’s first win in 47 races, dating back to last summer at Kentucky Speedway.

After a delirious Busch crossed the start/finish line, he was congratulated by both his younger brother Kyle and teammate Matt Kenseth.

“Matt Kenseth and I go back the furthest out of anybody,” Busch said. “It’s great to have him as a teammate right now and somebody that created stability for the 42 car, and to run with him and to share notes, it’s the best that we can be right now, with no practice and no normal sequences.

“With my little brother, our relationship has blossomed this year with being travel buddies and staying in a family bubble together and respecting the COVID process together, just to share stories and get caught up with things that we never talked about before, and to have him be the first one to give me the congratulatory donut down the back straightaway, it was a flashback of Legend car racing when we were growing up as kids together. Older brother always wins!”

Busch’s lingered at the outskirts of the top ten for most of the night but found himself leading eight lead-lap cars while the final edition of green flag pit stops got underway. While leaders and playoff contenders Denny Hamlin and Alex Bowman visited for service, the caution came out when Bowman’s teammate Jimmie Johnson lost a tire with 30 laps to go. Busch and his gang of holdouts were able to pit without losing their track position. The No. 1 paced those who came to pit road and emerged second behind Matt DiBenedetto. The latter’s No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford pitted two laps prior to the Johnson caution.

Over the last 26 laps, Busch immediately took the lead and held off a furious challenge from DiBenedetto to take home the win. Busch also had to deal with two further cautions but earned the race victory by a 0.148-second margin. Hamlin, who led a race-best 121 of 267 laps, finished third in front of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. Bowman’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet rounded out the top five. The strong run from Hamlin comes in his first race after announcing he would start a race team with basketball legend Michael Jordan and on-track competitor Bubba Wallace.

“We needed everything to go perfect in this round to advance to the Round of Eight,” Busch said of his Sunday. “You never want to count yourself out as a championship contender, but we knew we needed to work a little harder to keep pace with (Hamlin), to keep pace with (Kevin Harvick). There are the (Team Penske) guys that are strong, and I saw the (Harvick) tonight struggling, and (Kyle Busch) was running around me a lot tonight.

“You never know when your moment is going to come and the yellow came out at a perfect opportunity for us, and so yes, we’re advanced through to the Round of Eight. I still think it’s important to grab points at Talladega and the Roval. We just don’t have any ill side effects that are going to pop up these next two weeks. So we still need to go out there and put points in our pocket.”

DiBenedetto enjoyed a strong run in the midst of a trying period. The No. 21 Ford was eliminated from playoff contention last week at Bristol and it remains to be seen that DiBenedetto will return to the car next season. However, he still feels that he and his squad have a lot to race for.

The middle stage of the three-race Round of 12 in the Cup Series postseason will come at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races run at the track.

 Mandatory Credit: Gerry Broome/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network

Race Notes

  • Playoff contender Chase Elliott won each of the first two 80-lap stages, but late-race shuffling relegated him to a 22nd-place finish. Elliott enters Talladega 10 points above the cutoff to ninth place.

 

  • Busch’s younger brother Kyle finished sixth. It was overall a victorious weekend for the Busch family, as Kyle’s five-year-old son Brexton earned his first win in Beginner Box Stock racing on Saturday. Kyle Busch is currently the first driver out, nine points behind eighth-place Bowman.

 

  • Austin Dillon, the Round of 12’s most pleasant surprise, lost a belt for power steering in the early portions of the third stage. The No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet finished 32nd after spending eight laps making repairs, leaving Dillon 32 points out of advancement.

 

  • Dillon’s day capped off a brutal weekend for RCR. Rookie Tyler Reddick was one of four cars who failed to finish after ending the second stage in the wall.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags