Larson takes playoff opener at Darlington

Denny Hamlin leads a pack of cars to a restart, with Kyle Larson pacing the inside lane, during a NASCAR Cup Series Sunday at Darlington Raceway. Larson won the playoff opener. Matt Kelley/Associated Press

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Kyle Larson led the final 55 laps to start his latest NASCAR playoff run with his first career win at the Southern 500 on Sunday night.

The 2021 Cup Series champion automatically advances into the round of 12 with the win at Darlington Raceway, no matter how he does in races at Kansas and Bristol the next two weeks.

“What a great way to start the playoffs,” he said.

Larson didn’t have the fastest car, just one that got to the 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.

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 then was penalized when he could not avoid entering the pits moments after they were closed by NASCAR because a caution came out. Harvick was already headed to pit lane when a crash happened and said he didn’t have time to get back onto the track before the commitment line.

It was a successful run at the track “Too Tough To Tame” for Larson after several close calls. He 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.

Playoff drivers took the first seven spots. Reddick was second, followed by Chris Buescher, William Byron, Chastain, Brad Keselowski and Bubba Wallace.

Harvick ended 19th and Hamlin 25th.

FAREWELL, COMMANDER

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 awarded Tharp the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor governors can give.

POWER OUTAGE

NASCAR halted the race for seven minutes when some lights in Turns 3 and 4 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. The issue did not present itself during the track’s lighting test before race weekend.


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