Sweet redemption for Larson at Las Vegas

From sitting out of the competition due to suspension last season to racing his way to an early trip to Victory Lane this season, Kyle Larson muscled his way to a dominating victory in the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 7. The 28-year-old native from Elk Grove, California, led six times for a race-high 103 of 267 laps as he pulled away from Brad Keselowski in the late stages to record his first victory in his return to full-time NASCAR competition behind the wheel of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet.

The starting lineup was based on a performance metric formula, weighing the driver’s and owner’s results from a previous Cup event, the owner points position and the fastest lap recorded from a previous Cup race. With that, Kevin Harvick started on pole position and was joined on the front row with William Byron, winner of last weekend’s Cup event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Harvick received a push from Kyle Larson to jump ahead with the lead. Through Turn 1, Larson was also able to move into second place as Michael McDowell went to work on Byron for third place. 

With the field fanning out early to three lanes through the backstretch and through Turns 3 and 4, Byron was able to fight back and lead the first lap over teammate Larson and Harvick. With the field towards the front still fanning out to three lanes. Harvick was overtaken by a few more positions as Larson and Truex battled behind Byron for the runner-up spot.

Following the first five laps of the event, Byron continued to lead by nearly two-tenths of a second over teammate and a hard-charging Chase Elliott. Larson was in third followed by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. Harvick, meanwhile, fell back to eighth.

Five laps later and through the first 10 laps of the event, Byron’s No. 24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE retained a narrow advantage over teammate Elliott’s No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE while Truex and Larson battled dead even for third. Behind, Brad Keselowski challenged Hamlin for fifth while Christopher Bell, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman and McDowell were in the top 10. Harvick, meanwhile, was back in 11th and in front of Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch.

Another three laps later, Larson managed to overtake teammate Elliott for the runner-up spot. Behind, Keselowski overtook Truex for fourth place. Meanwhile, Byron remained in the lead. 

After trailing and intimidating his teammate in the early laps for the lead, Elliott managed to muscle his way into the lead on Lap 20 over Byron. A few laps later, teammate Larson moved into the runner-up spot.

Elliott was able to extend his advantage to nearly a second over teammate Larson when the competition caution flew on Lap 25. Byron, Truex and Keselowski were in the top five followed by Hamlin, Bowman, Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney and Harvick. By then, Christopher Bell was in 11th, Logano was in 13th, Kyle Busch was in 16th in between Austin Dillon and Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick was in 19th, Bubba Wallace was in 21st, Aric Almirola was in 23rd in front of teammates Cole Custer and rookie Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez was in 26th and Ryan Newman was in 29th.

Under caution, the leaders made the turn to pit road for early adjustments. Following the pit stops, Larson exited with the lead followed by Hamlin, Truex, Keselowski, Bowman Byron and Elliott. Behind, Wallace was assessed a pit road speeding penalty and sent to the rear of the field.

The race restarted on Lap 30 with Larson and Hamlin on the front row. At the start, Hamlin received a push from Keselowski on the inside lane to move into the lead. Keselowski also moved into the runner-up spot while Larson fell back to third in front of teammate Elliott and Truex. 

By Lap 33, Hamlin was out in front by two-tenths of a second over a side-by-side battle featuring Keselowski’s No. 2 Discount Tire Ford Mustang and Larson’s No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. Elliott was right behind in fourth place followed by teammate Bowman, Truex, Blaney, Byron, Kurt Busch and Matt DiBenedetto. 

Two laps later, Truex, Blaney and Bowman battled through three lanes for the fifth spot with Byron lurking behind. 

Back at the front, Larson and Keselowski continued to battle for the runner-up spot with Elliott remaining in pursuit. At the front, Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry remained in the lead. 

By Lap 40, Hamlin was still leading by approximately a tenth of a second over Larson. Teammate Elliott was in third followed by Keselowski, who slipped and nearly clipped Elliott the previous lap in Turn 1. Behind, Blaney cracked the top five over Truex, Byron, Bowman, Kurt Busch and DiBenedetto. 

Shortly after, Hendrick Motorsports’ teammates Larson and Elliott battled for the runner-up spot behind Hamlin while Blaney started to close in on Penske teammate Keselowski for fourth place. 

In the midst of the battle towards the front, Bubba Wallace returned to pit road with the hood of his No. 23 Columbia Sportswear Toyota Camry up after he reported a power steering line issue.

On Lap 44, Larson reassumed the lead over Hamlin. Behind, Keselowski caught back up to Elliott as he went to work on him for third place. Keselowski was eventually able to overtake Elliott for position and went to work on Hamlin for the runner-up spot. Blaney, meanwhile, remained in pursuit of the top-four leaders. 

Not long after, the caution flew due to debris reported in Turn 2. The caution served as a huge break for Kevin Harvick, who had a left-front tire going down as a result of making contact with Erik Jones. Under caution, the majority of the leaders returned to pit road and Hamlin was able to exit off pit road first followed by Elliott, Keselowski, Bowman and Blaney.

Back on the track, Larson remained in the race lead after electing to remain on the track on old tires. Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Tyler Reddick and teammate Austin Dillon also remained on the track.

The race restarted on Lap 51 with Larson and Logano on the front row. At the start, Larson retained the lead while Elliott made a bold four-wide move behind to move back to the front. Through the backstretch, the field fanned out to three and four lanes.

The following lap, Larson and Logano battled dead even for the lead as the field, featuring competitors on fresh tires compared to worn tires, continued to fan out to three and four lanes for position towards the front.

By Lap 54, two forms of three-wide battles ensued at the front with Keselowski challenging teammate Logano and Larson for the lead. A lap later, Logano was able to clear the field with the lead. Behind, Elliott muscled his way back into third before taking back second place from Keselowski. Blaney and Larson battled for fourth while Bell and Byron battled behind for sixth. Truex and Hamlin, meanwhile, were back in 10th and 12th.  

By Lap 60, Logano, racing in his No. 22 Pennzoil Ford Mustang on worn tires, continued to hold strong with the lead by a narrow margin over Elliott while Keselowski remained ahead of Larson for third place. Blaney was in fifth followed by Byron, Bell, Bowman, Kurt Busch and Hamlin. Truex was in 12th behind DiBenedetto.

Two laps later, Elliott, racing on fresh tires, returned to the lead following a lengthly battle with Logano. In the ensuing laps, Penske teammates Keselowski and Blaney overtook their other teammate Logano for third and fourth. Behind, Larson fell back to ninth while Bell, Byron Bowman and Hamlin moved up. 

Through the first 70 laps of the event, Elliott maintained a narrow advantage over Keselowski. Teammate Blaney was in third while Bell overtook Logano for fourth place. Bowman and Hamlin closed in on Logano for fifth while Byron, DiBenedetto and Larson were in the top 10. Truex was in 12th behind Kurt Busch.

Two laps later, Keselowski made his way to the top of the field following a pass on Elliott for position. While Bell, teammate Hamlin and Bowman battled for fourth, Logano slipped back to eighth on worn tires, two spots ahead of Larson. 

Back at the front, Keselowski and Elliott continued to battle intensely for the lead, with the latter prevailing not long after by two-tenths of a second. Blaney trailed by more than a second in third place while Hamlin and Bowman overtook Bell for fourth and fifth. 

While Keselowski and Elliott continued to battle against one another on the track for the lead, Logano and Larson were back in ninth and 12th while Truex and Kurt Busch were in ninth and 11th. Kyle Busch was in 14th while Harvick, who started on pole, was mired in 18th.

Following a lengthly battle with Elliott, Keselowski was able to reassume the lead on Lap 79 and hold on to claim the first stage victory on Lap 80, which also marked his first stage victory of the season. Elliott settled in second followed by Blaney, Hamlin and Bowman while Bell, Byron, DiBenedetto, Logano and Truex were scored in the top 10. 

Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Hamlin returned to the lead following a strong pit stop from his crew. Keselowski exited in second place followed by Bowman, DiBenedetto, Blaney and Logano. During the pit stops, Elliott spent extra time on pit road to have damage on the right side of his No. 9 Chevrolet from an earlier pit stop caused by the jack repaired. In addition, Reddick was assessed a pit road speeding penalty.

The second stage started on Lap 87 with Hamlin and Keselowski on the front row. At the start, Hamlin and Keselowski battled dead even through Turn 1 and the backstretch while Byron made a bold move on the outside lane to crack the top five. 

The following lap, Keselowski was able to reassume the lead followed by teammate Blaney. Bowman, racing in his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, went to work on Hamlin for third while DiBenedetto and Byron battled for fifth. 

By Lap 90, Keselowski was leading by approximately a tenth of a second over teammate Blaney. Hamlin retained third place by a narrow margin over Bowman and DiBenedetto while Larson closed in on teammate Byron for position. 

Through the first 100 laps of the race, Keselowski continued to lead by approximately two-tenths of a second over teammate Blaney. Teammates Larson and Byron battled for third while Hamlin was in fifth. Bowman, DiBenedetto, Truex, Bell and Logano were in the top 10 followed by the Busch brothers. Elliott, meanwhile, worked his way up to 14th after restarting in 30th place at the start of the second stage.

Five laps later, Larson muscled his way back into the runner-up spot and teammate Byron also moved up, thus dropping Blaney to fourth place. Meanwhile, Keselowski continued to lead the field. Another two laps later, however, Larson retook the lead by a narrow margin over Keselowski. 

By Lap 115, Larson was the leader by nearly half a second over teammate Byron with Keselowski trailing by more than a second in third place. Blaney and Hamlin were in the top five followed by Bowman, DiBenedetto, Bell, teammate Truex and Logano. The Busch brothers were in 12th and 13th, Elliott was still mired in 14th and Harvick haas in 17th in front of Chris Buescher.

By Lap 120, Larson continued to lead by approximately half a second over teammate Byron. Blaney was in third, but was now trailing by three seconds. Hamlin and Keselowski remained in the top five followed by Bowman, DiBenedetto, Truex, teammate Bell and Logano. Elliott, meanwhile, was back in 15th behind the Busch brothers and Ryan Preece.

Shortly after, pit stops under green occurred as Bowman was the first of the leaders to pit followed by a multitude of competitors, including leader Larson.

By Lap 130, Tyler Reddick, who had yet to pit, was leading followed by Michael McDowell, rookie/teammate Anthony Alfredo, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez and Cole Custer while Larson was in seventh.

At the halfway mark on Laps 133 and 134, Reddick continued to lead followed by Front Row Motorsports’ teammates McDowell and Alfredo. LaJoie and Suarez were in the top five while Larson was in sixth. Hamlin, Keselowski, teammate Blaney and Byron were in the top 10.

By Lap 140 and with 20 laps remaining in the second stage, teammates McDowell and Alfredo were leading the field followed by LaJoie, Larson and Suarez. By then, Reddick pitted for service.

On Lap 146, McDowell surrendered the lead to pit. A lap later, Larson reassumed the lead. Shortly after, rookie Alfredo pitted along with Corey LaJoie. By then, Larson’s advantage stretched to nearly six seconds over Keselowski. Hamlin was in third followed by Blaney and Byron. Bell along with teammates Truex and Kyle Busch followed by Elliott were in the top 10. DiBenedetto, meanwhile, was in 12th behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. while Kurt Busch, Logano and Harvick were in the top 15.

With the laps in the second stage dwindling, Larson continued to lead by a steady and healthy margin over Keselowski. Having no challengers close in on him for the top spot, Larson was able to hold steady and claim the second stage victory by more than three seconds over Keselowski on Lap 160. In claiming his first stage victory of this season, Larson became the sixth competitor to record a stage victory through the first four Cup races of the 2021 season. Hamlin settled in third followed by Byron and Blaney while Bowman, Bell, Truex, Kyle Busch and Elliott were scored in the top 10. By then, 21 of the 38-car field were scored on the lead lap.

Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Larson retained the lead following service from his pit crew. Hamlin exited in second place followed by Bowman, Truex, Bell and Kyle Busch. Byron, meanwhile, fell back to 10th behind Keselowski, Blaney and Elliott.

With 100 laps remaining, the final stage commenced. At the start, Larson moved his No. 5 Chevrolet in front of Hamlin on the inside lane. He then blocked Hamlin entering Turn 1 on the outside lane as Truex issued a challenge on the inside lane. 

Through the backstretch and coming back to Turn 4, Larson retained the lead over Hamlin and Truex as the field fanned out while battling for spots. Behind, Kyle Busch started to make his way into the top five.

The following lap, the caution returned when Elliott got loose entering the backstretch, made contact with Kurt Busch and spun in a full 360 degrees before continuing. While the rest of the field managed to dodge him, Elliott sustained left-front fender damage as he pitted to have the damage assessed. Kurt Busch also pitted to have damage on his No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE addressed along with a flat right-rear tire. Meanwhile, Hamlin had taken the lead over Larson at the time of caution

With 93 laps remaining, the race restarted under green with leader Hamlin and Larson on the front row. At the start, Larson squeaked ahead, but Hamlin received a push from teammate Truex on the backstretch to take back the lead. 

Six laps later, the caution returned when Aric Almirola made hard contact against with the outside wall in Turn 1. The damage to the right side of Almirola’s No. 10 Smithfield Power Bites Ford Mustang was enough to end his race in the garage. At the time of caution, Hamlin was leading by nearly a tenth of a second over teammate Truex while Larson, Blaney and Keselowski were in the top five. Byron, teammate Bowman, Logano, Bell and Kyle Busch were in the top 10.  

Under caution, some led by Hamlin, Truex and Blaney remained on the track while others led by Keselowski and Larson pitted.

The race restarted with 83 laps remaining as teammates Hamlin and Truex occupied the front row. At the start, the two Joe Gibbs Racing teammates battled dead even for a full circuit before Truex peaked ahead in his No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry as the field behind fanned out to three and four lanes. 

With 80 laps remaining, Truex was out in front by more than a tenth of a second over teammate Hamlin followed by Blaney, Byron and Bell. Keselowski, the first competitor on fresh tires, was in sixth while Larson, who restarted 17th on fresh tires, was up in eighth behind DiBenedetto. 

A lap later, Hamlin came under pressure from Keselowski for the runner-up spot as teammates Byron and Larson overtook Blaney for positions in the top five. 

Down to the final 75 laps of the event, Hamlin fought back and reassumed the lead by a narrow advantage over teammate Truex while Larson and Keselowski quickly went to work on Truex for the runner-up spot. Soon after, an intense six-car battle for the lead ensued between Hamlin, teammate Truex, Larson, Keselowski, Byron and Blaney as Hamlin continued to duke against Truex for the lead. 

With 70 laps remaining, Hamlin was still leading by nearly three-tenths of a second over Larson. Truex and Keselowski battled intensely for third place followed by Byron and Blaney. Bell was in seventh followed by DiBenedetto and Erik Jones. Kyle Busch was mired back in 10th. Meanwhile, Logano was in 13th while Elliott was in 16th behind Austin Dillon.

Ten laps later and under 60 laps remaining, Larson reassumed the lead over Hamlin. He then stretched his advantage to more than a second over Hamlin with Keselowski remaining in third. Truex was in fourth followed by Blaney while Byron, Bell, Kyle Busch, DiBenedetto and Jones were in the top 10. 

Down to the final 50 laps of the event, Larson was leading by more than a second over Keselowski with Hamlin trailing by more than two seconds. Blaney was in fourth, trailing by more than three seconds while Truex was in fifth.

Nearly four laps later, pit stops under green started as a handful of leaders pitted followed by others.

With 37 laps remaining and with nearly the entire field having made a pit stop, Daniel Suarez, who has yet to pit, was scored as the leader. Larson, the first competitor on fresh tires and fuel, was behind by less than nine seconds with Keselowski remaining in pursuit. 

Eight laps later, Larson returned to the lead. By then, he was leading by a second and a half over Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford.

With 20 laps remaining and the leaders making their way through lapped traffic, Larson extended his lead to two and a half seconds over Keselowski. Hamlin was tucked in third place followed by teammates Kyle Busch and Truex. Blaney was back in sixth followed by Bell, Byron, teammate Bowman and Logano. Meanwhile, DiBenedetto was in 11th ahead of Jones, Stenhouse, Austin Dillon and Elliott. Kurt Busch was in 20th behind McDowell while Harvick was in 22nd, the final car on the lead lap, behind Ryan Newman.

A few laps later, Bowman, who was running in the top 10, made the turn to pit road due to a flat tire. During the process of trying to enter pit road, he nearly collided with rookie Alfredo. Shortly after, it went from bad to worse for Bowman, who was assessed a pass-through penalty down pit road due to a commitment line violation while trying to enter pit road to pit.

Down to the final 10 laps of the event, Larson continued to lead by more than two and a half seconds over Keselowski. Behind, Kyle Busch zipped his No. 18 Ethel M Chocolates Toyota Camry into third place while teammate Hamlin were in fourth. Blaney was in fifth followed by Truex, teammate Bell, Byron, Logano and Jones. 

A few laps later, Larson extended his lead to more than three seconds over Keselowski with Kyle Busch trailing by more than six seconds, Hamlin by more than eight seconds, Blaney by more than nine seconds and Truex by more than 11 seconds.

With five laps remaining, Larson remained in the lead by three seconds over Keselowski. By then, 15 competitors were recorded on the lead lap as the leaders continued to encounter heavy traffic.

Spending the final laps methodically working his way through lapped traffic, Larson was able to maintain his healthy advantage of more than three seconds and complete the final laps on a successful note as he claimed the checkered flag to win at Vegas.

The victory marked Larson’s seventh of his Cup career and first since October 2019 at Dover International Speedway as he became the fourth different competitor to win within the first four events of the 2021 season. Above all, the Vegas win also validated Larson’s return to the top level in NASCAR after being suspended nearly a year ago due to using a racial slur during a live iRacing event, a move that cost him his full-time ride with Chip Ganassi Racing. Late into the 2020 season, an opportunity for Larson to return to NASCAR arrived when Hendrick Motorsports signed Larson for the 2021 season.

Larson’s victory also marked the first Cup victory for crew chief Cliff Daniels and the first for HMS’ No. 5 car since July 2017 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In addition, Larson became the 20th different competitor to win while driving for Hendrick Motorsports as HMS claimed Cup career win No. 265.

“It was such an awesome race car,” Larson said on FOX. “[Crew chief] Cliff [Daniels] and everybody did a great job preparing this piece. It was so much fun to drive. I could go wherever I wanted to. I knew I had a really good car once we’d get single-filed out. Just drafting early in the run was tough. Thank you so much, Mr. [Hendrick], Jeff Gordon, everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for the amazing opportunity I’ve been gifted…This is definitely special.”

“I know that this is Rick’s most special paint scheme for obvious reasons,” Larson added. “It’s just an honor for me to be able to drive it, our first time out with this [blue, white and red] color scheme. Like I said, just blessed…That was some fun racing on the restarts, so I hoped everybody enjoyed it. I know I did.”

Keselowski settled in second place for his second top-five result of this season. Kyle Busch came home in third place as he claimed his first top-five finish of this season while teammate Hamlin and Blaney finished in the top five.

“Yeah, good for [Larson],” Keselowski said on PRN. “He ran a great race. He was really fast. The kid’s got so much talent. I still wanted to beat him, though, but we had a great Discount Tire Ford Mustang. If he wasn’t here, we would have just stunk the show up, but he was and he ran good.”

“We fought hard obviously,” Busch said. “We were a little behind the eight ball at the start of the green flag and just were super, super tight all day long. [Crew chief] Ben [Beshore] and the guys made awesome adjustments to and I was trying to give the best feedback I can to give them good information that they can base that off of and make the good adjustments. We improved each time. I don’t know where we missed it so far from the simulator, but that’s two weeks in a row where we’re not apples to apples. Just can’t say enough about Ethel M Chocolates, thank you guys…Ready to keep working on it and keep improving. We were just a little off on pace, overall pace, overall lap time from the fast guys.”

“We’re close,” Hamlin added. “We just have to fine tune it. We’re gathering up information right now to figure out how we can make our FedEx Camry better in the fall. This is a good start. We got it in the short rounds but not enough long run speed…Overall, good start. We will see, gather all the data and I will figure out this week what we have to do.”

“I thought it was a pretty solid day all day,” Blaney added. “We had to start pretty far in the back from our bad finish last week and was able to make it up to ninth before the [competition] caution and got third in the first stage and then like fifth in the second and ended up fifth. I thought we could have run second or third. [Larson] was really the fastest one all day long. It didn’t matter where he was he just drove through the field but overall, a really good effort by our group. We really needed that after having three pretty bad races to start off the year. It’s nice to kind of finally get a good run and just a no problem day, just having a solid car and working on it throughout the day. I’m really proud of [crew chief] Todd [Gordon] and the whole No. 12 bunch and nice to get a good finish. Now we can get rolling here.”

Truex, teammate Bell, Byron, Logano and Erik Jones came home in the top 10 on the track. 

Elliott settled in 13th behind Austin Dillon, DiBenedetto ended up in 16th, Kurt Busch finished 19th, Harvick came home in 20th and Bowman settled in 27th following his late pit road miscue. Chase Briscoe was the highest-finishing rookie in 21st. Suarez finished 26th while Bubba Wallace finished 28th.

There were 27 lead changes for 12 different leaders. The race featured six cautions for 30 laps. 

Hamlin continues to lead the regular-season standings by 38 points over Keselowski, 40 over Larson, 48 over Elliott, 49 over Bell and Logano and 51 over Harvick.

Results.

1. Kyle Larson, 103 laps led, Stage 2 winner

2. Brad Keselowski, 27 laps led, Stage 1 winner

3. Kyle Busch

4. Denny Hamlin, 47 laps led

5. Ryan Blaney, one lap led

6. Martin Truex Jr., six laps led

7. Christopher Bell

8. William Byron, 25 laps led

9. Joey Logano, seven laps led

10. Erik Jones

11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 

12. Austin Dillon

13. Chase Elliott, 22 laps led

14. Chris Buescher

15. Ryan Preece, one lap down

16. Matt DiBenedetto, one lap down

17. Michael McDowell, one lap down, eight laps led

18. Ryan Newman, one lap down

19. Kurt Busch, one lap down

20. Kevin Harvick, one lap down

21. Chase Briscoe, one lap down

22. Tyler Reddick, one lap down, seven laps led

23. Ross Chastain, one lap down

24. Anthony Alfredo, one lap down, one lap led

25. Cole Custer, one lap down

26. Daniel Suarez, two laps down, 12 laps led

27. Alex Bowman, two laps down

28. Bubba Wallace, five laps down

29. Justin Haley, five laps down

30. B.J. McLeod, seven laps down

31. Garrett Smithley, eight laps down

32. Cody Ware, eight laps down

33. Quin Houff, 11 laps down

34. Joey Gase, 12 laps down

35. Josh Bilicki, 15 laps down

36. Timmy Hill, 21 laps down

37. Corey LaJoie – OUT, Rear end

38. Aric Almirola – OUT, Accident

The NASCAR Cup Series will remain in the West Coast for the next event on the schedule at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Arizona, next weekend. The race will occur on Sunday, March 14, at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

Andrew Kim
An avid motorsports enthusiast from California with aspirations of working in any form of communications, PR or digital/social media in motorsports.

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