After a spirited battle for the win with Tyler Reddick, Kyle Larson drove away to open the NASCAR playoffs with his first win in the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Larson’s win is his third of the 2023 season, the 22nd of his Cup Series career, and it advances him to the Round of 12 in the playoffs.
After a series of race-changing developments occurred over the final 100 laps on pit road, Larson found himself out front in the final 50 laps, where he had to match wits with Reddick before pulling away in the closing laps. Larson’s Southern 500 triumph marks his second win in one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races, as he previously won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte back in his championship year of 2021.
Cook Out Southern 500 unofficial results
- #5 – Kyle Larson
- #45 – Tyler Reddick
- #17 – Chris Buescher
- #24 – William Byron
- #1 – Ross Chastain
- #6 – Brad Keselowski
- #23 – Bubba Wallace
- #9 – Chase Elliott
- #12 – Ryan Blaney
- #43 – Erik Jones
Larson had come close at Darlington before, with three overall runner-up finishes including two in the Southern 500 — one of which was a heartbreaker in 2018, where he dominated the race only to lose late to Brad Keselowski. Given that, Larson told NBC Sports his Southern 500 win is among the top five he’s had in his career.
“This has been one of my favorite tracks my whole career, and I’ve been really, really fast here my whole career. I just usually get in the wall,” Larson said. “And finally we have the Next Gen car that’s tough enough to allow me to hit the wall. So I was able to make some mistakes and get a win. Adding this trophy to the collection is gonna be amazing.”
With his first win since Martinsville back in April, Larson is now in leagues with the winningest drivers on the season so far. Larson is one of five drivers to have won three or more races this year, joining William Byron (five wins), Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Chris Buescher.
It’s the Pits
Even before the last 100 laps, pit road played a major role in influencing the course of the Southern 500 for the playoff contenders — whether it was an early pit road speeding penalty for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., or a loose wheel that marked a massive setback for Martin Truex Jr. But once the late stages of Sunday evening’s 500-mile affair began to unfold, the impact of pit road was magnified in how much it altered who was left to battle for the win.
Denny Hamlin looked to have prohibitively the best car in the field, as he swept the opening two stages and looked largely invulnerable out front. But after a green flag pit stop, a vibration from what Hamlin believed was a loose wheel forced him back to pit road, taking him out of contention.
That opened the door for Tyler Reddick to take control of the race, but he would end up getting run down by Kevin Harvick in lapped traffic before the next cycle of green flag stops began. And then, things took another dramatic turn.
As Harvick peeled off to try and beat Reddick to pit road and get one lap fresher tires with 58 to go, Reddick was seemingly suddenly called to pit road far too late to head to the pits and make the commitment line. That led to Reddick slowing down dramatically mid-corner, leading to the lapped car of Ryan Newman getting hard on the binders and spinning his car to bring out a caution.
That occurred as Harvick was committed to come to pit road, and the ensuing yellow closed the pits just as Harvick was entering them. And when Harvick made his pit stop, that meant a penalty for stopping while the pits were closed. Harvick was forced to restart at the tail end of the field, and never truly recovered on his way to finishing 19th.
Hamlin and Harvick weren’t alone among the playoff contenders who had trouble. Joey Logano and Christopher Bell both dealt with broken toe links from wall contact, and Bell also got collected in several accidents. Bubba Wallace went for a spin coming to the finish of Stage 1, and Kyle Busch almost saw his race get derailed by contact with the wall. But the worst off would be Michael McDowell, who finished 32nd after being eliminated in a late-race crash that also involved Hamlin and Bell.
Dumb is as Dumb Does
While both missed the 2023 playoffs after being participants in 2022, Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez were shaping up to make their presence felt late in the going at Darlington. They did so — for the wrong reason.
Racing for eighth spot with 49 laps to go, Suarez got a run on Bowman heading down the front straightaway, which Bowman responded to by moving down to block. Suarez then moved high, and Bowman responded by blocking high as well. Suarez stood his ground entering Turn 1, sending both into the wall and causing a three-car pileup that also collected an innocent bystander in Harrison Burton.
The optics suggested that overaggressive blocking by Bowman — in simpler terms, dumb driving — caused the crash, a hypothesis Suarez supported when he called Bowman’s move “dumb” following a trip to the infield care center.
“I went to the inside and after that he blocked me pretty low, I had to lift not to wreck him and put him in the inside wall. Then I went to go high and he blocks me again,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “You can block once, you can’t block twice. He has to use his brain a little more.”
Bowman took responsibility for the accident, but he made sure not to let Suarez’s characterization of his driving go unchallenged. And in doing so, said plainly the pot was calling the kettle black.
“Every time I race the No. 99, he does something dumb,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “Whether it’s his crew chief flipping me off on the way to the airport, or just any time I’m around him he blocks me really aggressively. So that’s just part of it sometimes. And obviously the block didn’t work out and looking back I shouldn’t have done it … If he wants to call me dumb, every time I’m around him there’s a big block. So that’s just part of racing sometimes.”
To add spice to the dispute, Suarez’s crew chief Travis Mack took umbrage on Twitter to the notion he had given Bowman the finger at any point. Mack made sure his stance was heard, while also taking a shot at Bowman that referenced the concussion he suffered last year in a crash at Texas.
The Playoff Picture
As Kyle Larson becomes the first driver to move on to the next round, most of the playoff contenders were able to keep a decent gap between themselves and the cut line, with the exception of defending Cup champion Joey Logano (+3) and Christopher Bell (+1). A seventh-place finish allowed Bubba Wallace (-1) to move to within one point of the cut line, while a chunk of stage points earned in Stage 1 allowed Kevin Harvick (-2) to mitigate the damage that a midpack finish could have done.
With his recovery to a 16th-place finish — plus a single point earned by finishing 10th in Stage 2 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is now just four points below the cut line. That leaves Michael McDowell (-19) as the only driver in a significant points hole, one he’ll have a tough time climbing out of despite the playoff points he earned with his win at Indianapolis last month.
Race Results Rundown
- Kyle Larson’s 22nd career victory ties him on NASCAR’s all-time wins list with Hall of Famer Terry Labonte, who like Larson won a Cup Series championship while driving the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Coincidentally, Larson’s win comes on the 20th anniversary of Labonte’s 22nd and final Cup Series win in the 2003 Southern 500.
- After nearly falling a lap down early in the race, Ross Chastain gradually picked up the pace throughout the night before finishing fifth in a solid start to his playoff run. It’s Chastain’s seventh top five of the season, but it’s his first since his win at Nashville in June and only his second since all the way back at Kansas in May.
- Two-time Southern 500 champion Erik Jones made his presence felt again, running as high as third before settling for a 10th-place finish. It’s Bowman’s sixth top-10 finish of the season, four of which have come following the lone off week of the season in mid-June.
- While Kevin Harvick flashed race-winning pace before being caught by circumstances, Aric Almirola and Chase Briscoe ended up leading the way for Stewart-Haas Racing and continued to show some encouraging signs for the program. Almirola’s 14th-place finish now gives him four top 15s in his last seven races, while Briscoe’s 15th-place run gives him his fourth top 15 in his last eight starts.
- Making his second career Cup start in one of NASCAR’s toughest races, rising star Carson Hocevar acquitted himself well in his first of three scheduled starts for Legacy Motor Club. After an impressive 15th-place qualifying run, Hocevar hung around the top 20 all night and finished 17th, marking the second-best finish of the entire season for the No. 42 Chevrolet.
- No one can ever accuse Ryan Preece of not being tough. One week after violently flipping his car at Daytona, Preece showed up ready to race at Darlington with badly bloodshot eyes that put him in the same category as Ricky Rudd and Davey Allison following their own vicious rollovers way back when. Unfortunately, Preece’s race wasn’t nearly as cool as his look: He struggled with the handling of his car all night and finished three laps down in 28th.
The Round of 16 moves on to the heartland and the Kansas Speedway for the Hollywood Casino 400, which is slated for next Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network.