For Kyle Larson, the Southern 500 was the crown jewel that kept slipping away. 11 career starts entering Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener produced 11 starts, three runner-up finishes and a whole trophy case filled with heartbreak. 715 career laps led was the most for him at any NASCAR track he had yet to win.
What a time for Lady Luck to finally cut Larson a break at the Lady In Black.
The 2021 Cup champion survived a legendary Darlington stripe, messing up the handling of his Chevrolet, to peak when it mattered most in the final stage. As other rivals fell victim to their own mistakes, Larson executed what the team felt was the best all-around performance since his dominance during the NASCAR All-Star Race in May.
“We kept our heads in the game,” Larson said. “That was really important. This race is all about keeping your head in it.”
He’s right. The sheer length of Darlington’s 500-mile event, taking over four hours to complete, takes its toll on both man and machine. It began with a 115-lap, green-flag run to the end of Stage 1 and finished up with three cautions and four DNFs in the final 100 miles.
Larson knows the feeling of falling short in those final moments. He led the most laps here just two years ago only to lose out in a kamikaze charge against Denny Hamlin.
This year, Hamlin looked to have the race in hand again only for a loose wheel to knock him out of contention. The race fell into Tyler Reddick’s hands, then perhaps Kevin Harvick while Larson struggled behind them.
“I messed up once and it got hung in neutral,” Larson said. “I slid and hit the wall, and I think bent the toe link a little bit, so it was kind of a struggle from there.”
That’s where crew chief Cliff Daniels remained the steady hand on Larson’s pit box. Cheerleading without concealing the truth, he kept Larson focused and prevented the snowball effect that could lead to a frustrated driver crashing out.
“We all know he has the talent,” Daniels said. “When he gets out front and executes a good restart and does all the things that we know he can do, he’s dynamite.”
The No. 5 team did their part after Larson kept the car inside the top five, pulling off a pit stop to launch to the front after a caution for Ryan Newman’s spin with 57 laps remaining. From there, it was a combination of Larson finding a rhythm and Daniels making sure his driver’s mind didn’t stray.
“The ball is in his court, not yours,” Daniels said of Reddick, who ran a close second. “You run the line you want and he’s the one who’s got to work for it.”
Larson acknowledged those are the words of encouragement he needs in those pressure-packed moments.
“Having a leader like Cliff,” Larson said, “Is really good for my mind.”
Green: Ross Chastain. Last week’s red pick turned green in a hurry. A trendy pick to nosedive out of the playoffs, Chastain fell a lap down early but fought back to post his first top-five finish since winning at Nashville Superspeedway in June. “We needed 1,000 miles,” Chastain joked, “To get all the way to the lead.”
Yellow: 23XI Racing. What an impressive showing for this two-car Toyota team with so little to show for it. Both Reddick, who led 90 laps, and Bubba Wallace (seventh) produced impressive performances at one of the sport’s most difficult tracks. It still wasn’t enough for Reddick to earn that next round-clinching win, while Wallace remains a point below the cutline.
Red: Joe Gibbs Racing. Could the night have gone any worse for JGR? Hamlin’s loose wheel cost him a lap, then a wreck finished off any hope for the three-time Southern 500 winner who wound up 25th after leading a race-high 177 laps. Regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. was a mess, bottoming out in the corners and hitting rock bottom after a loose wheel. “It was just a bad day,” said crew chief James Small. “The balance was off.”
Their 18th-place result was actually the best of the bunch. Pole sitter Christopher Bell finished 23rd after pancaking the wall while even the team’s lone non-playoff driver, Ty Gibbs, got involved in a midrace incident with Austin Cindric and limped to 21st.
Speeding Ticket: Kevin Harvick. The night’s weird moment came during the final stage with Harvick closing fast on leader Tyler Reddick. The No. 4 team chose to dive down pit road, hoping to pass Reddick during the green-flag pit stop cycle with a lap or two fresher tires than the field.
Reddick saw Harvick slow behind him and immediately slowed to hit the pits, too, leaving Ryan Newman no choice but spin in order to avoid the No. 45. The resulting caution closed pit road, penalizing Harvick as he chose to stay the course rather than risk a last-second, evasive maneuver.
It was a weird moment; Reddick’s move essentially eliminated Harvick while the No. 4 team knew what the consequences would be. They still pitted the car, putting their driver at the tail end of the longest line where the car stalled out in traffic and finished 19th.
Harvick didn’t speak after the race and released a statement saying, “The caution came out and the light was on, and I didn’t think I could turn right.” Should he still have been penalized? Feels like a nasty gray area where the rule worked against a potential race winner.
“It all happened,” argued Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers, “Because the 45 tried to do something he shouldn’t have.”
The night’s most serious incident happened between two non-playoff contenders. Alex Bowman made the cardinal sin of blocking not once but twice on the faster car of Daniel Suarez while both cars battled for position. The second time, both men paid the price while Harrison Burton got the worst of it.
Both men blamed the other for went wrong.
“He blocks me whenever I’m around him,” Bowman claimed, “And we needed to hold onto all the track position we could.”
“I gave him a break once,” countered Suarez, “I won’t give him a break twice. It’s not right. He has five minutes of being a dummy and he used it against the 99, I guess.”