Denny Hamlin took another step closer in achieving his first NASCAR Cup Series championship after the veteran Joe Gibbs Racing competitor held off Chase Elliott to win the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, September 26.
The victory was enough for Hamlin and his No. 11 JGR Toyota team to earn a spot in the Playoff’s Round of 8.
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, Kyle Larson, winner of last weekend’s Playoff event at Bristol Motor Speedway, started on pole position and was joined on the front row with Ryan Blaney.
Prior to the event, Playoff contenders William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. started at the rear of the field after their respective machines failed pre-race inspection twice. Aric Almirola and JJ Yeley also dropped to the rear of the field for meeting the same fate as Byron and Truex. For Yeley’s case, however, his car failed pre-race inspection three times, resulting with his crew chief, Ty Brazeal, being ejected from the event and the driver penalized with a drive-through penalty at the start of the race.
When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Larson peaked ahead on the outside lane, but Blaney fought back on the inside lane through the first two turns. Through Turn 3, Blaney received a push from Kevin Harvick to clear Larson and lead the first lap in his No. 12 Menards Ford Mustang. In Turn 3, Harvick got loose and shuffled back to sixth while mired in a tight, three-wide battle. During this process, Denny Hamlin moved up to third followed by Brad Keselowski, Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch as Joey Logano and Matt DiBenedetto joined the battle.
The following lap, Hamlin muscled his No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry into the runner-up spot over Larson as Kyle Busch, DiBenedetto and Joey Logano battled for fourth through the backstretch and returning to the frontstretch.
Through the first five laps of the event, Blaney was leading by two-tenths of a second over Hamlin while Kyle Busch, Larson and Logano were in the top five. Alex Bowman, meanwhile, muscled his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE into sixth followed by DiBenedetto, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Harvick. By then, Byron was in 21st behind Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace while Truex was in 24th behind Ryan Newman.
Three laps later, Hamlin emerged as the new leader over Blaney as Larson and Kyle Busch, both of whom battled for third, closed in on Blaney for more. Behind, Logano moved into the top five ahead of DiBenedetto, Harvick and Bowman.
By Lap 20, Hamlin continued to lead by nearly six-tenths of a second over Blaney. Kyle Busch was in third ahead of Larson while DiBenedetto was in fifth. Harvick, Logano, Erik Jones, William Byron and Keselowski were in the top 10 followed by Chase Elliott, Bowman, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Austin Dillon. Kurt Busch, who was making his 750th career start, was in 16th ahead of rookie Chase Briscoe while Truex was in 19th ahead of Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace, Michael McDowell and Ross Chastain.
When the competition caution flew on Lap 25, Hamlin stabilized his advantage to approximately six-tenths of a second over Blaney and more than a second over teammate Kyle Busch, who was making his 600th Cup career start. By then, Byron was up in ninth behind Erik Jones while Truex was mired in 18th behind Briscoe. In addition, teammates Elliott and Bowman were in 11th and 13th.
Under the competition caution, the leaders pitted and Kyle Busch emerged with the lead following his pit stops followed by teammate Hamlin, Blaney, Larson, Harvick and DiBenedetto. During the pit stops, Kurt Busch and Christopher Bell pitted again to have their respective machines repaired after both made contact with one another. In addition, Logano pitted again to have the lug nuts on his No. 22 Pennzoil Ford Mustang tightened.
When the race restarted on Lap 30, teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin were locked in a heated, side-by-side battle in front of the field running in two lanes for a full lap. The following lap, Hamlin managed to squeak ahead of Kyle Busch as Larson and Blaney joined the battle. Behind, DiBenedetto battled Harvick for fifth. Another lap later, Kyle Busch retained second followed by Blaney as DiBenedetto shoved Larson through the frontstretch while battling Harvick.
By Lap 35, Byron battled teammate Elliott for seventh while DiBenedetto and Harvick battled for fifth. In addition, Blaney and Larson continued to battle for third while Kyle Busch kept teammate Hamlin within his sights for the lead.
Five laps later, the top-three competitors were separated by half a second as Hamlin continued to lead ahead of Kyle Busch and Larson. Meanwhile, the fourth-place competitor of Blaney was trailing by nearly a second while Harvick was in fifth. Byron was up in sixth while DiBenedetto fell back to seventh. Elliott, Tyler Reddick and Keselowski were in the top 10 followed by Bowman and Truex.
On Lap 44, Hamlin and Larson split the lapped car in Turn 3 while battling for the lead. Another lap later, Larson, who won at Vegas in March, made his way into the lead. Shortly after, Kyle Busch moved his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry into the runner-up spot.
Through the first 50 laps of the event, Larson was out in front by eight-tenths of a second over Kyle Busch while Hamlin was in third, trailing by more than a second. Blaney and Harvick were in the top five followed by Byron, Elliott, Reddick, DiBenedetto and Keselowski. Truex and Bowman were in 11th and 12th, Logano was back in 20th behind Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell was mired back in 25th behind Aric Almirola and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
By Lap 60, Larson extended his advantage to more than a second over Kyle Busch. While Hamlin and Blaney remained in the top five, Byron made his first appearance in the top five after overtaking Harvick earlier. In addition, Elliott overtook his new rival, Harvick, in sixth while Truex was in 10th. Logano and Bell, meanwhile, were mired back in 19th and 23rd.
Fifteen laps later, Larson continued to lead by nearly two seconds over Kyle Busch while Hamlin, Blaney and Byron remained in the top five. Elliott, Reddick, Harvick, DiBenedetto and Truex stabilized themselves in the top 10 ahead of Keselowski, Bowman, Erik Jones, Briscoe, Austin Dillon, Logano, Kurt Busch, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace and McDowell.
When the first stage concluded on Lap 80, Larson captured his 15th stage victory of the season. Kyle Busch settled in second followed by Hamlin, Blaney, Byron, Elliott, Reddick, Harvick, DiBenedetto and Truex.
Under the stage break, the leaders returned to pit road and Hamlin emerged with the lead ahead of Larson, Elliott, Blaney, Byron and Reddick while Kyle Busch dropped back to seventh following a slow pit stop. During the pit stops, Aric Almirola was penalized for equipment interference. In addition, Bell, who pitted a lap earlier to have some damage repaired on his car, lost a lap to the leaders after he failed to beat the pace car off of pit road.
The second stage started on Lap 87. At the start, Hamlin received a push from Blaney on the inside lane to retain the lead while Larson remained in the hunt. In the midst of the battle at the front, the field fanned out to multiple lanes through the backstretch. Then during the following lap, Larson made a bold move on the outside lane to reassume the lead as Elliott motored his No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE into third. In addition, Byron challenged Blaney for fourth while Reddick was in sixth ahead of Harvick and Kyle Busch.
On Lap 90 and with the field competing in close quarters towards the front, Byron bolted his No. 24 AXALTA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE into the lead following a bold three-wide pass on Larson and Hamlin through the frontstretch and entering Turn 1. Larson then retained second followed by Blaney while Hamlin fell back to fourth in front of Elliott and Reddick.
Shortly after, the caution flew due to a heavy accident involving Joey Gase, where he lost a left-rear tire in Turn 1 and pounded the outside wall as he nearly flipped before coming to a rest below the Turn 2 apron and with significant rear-end damage. Despite climbing out under his own power, Gase was later transported to a local hospital for further evaluation.
Under caution, some led by Hamlin pitted while the rest led by teammates Byron and Larson remained on the track.
When the race restarted on Lap 98, Larson and Byron battled dead even for the top spot through the backstretch until Larson made his way to the front in Turn 3. Behind, teammates, Elliott and Byron battled for second while Bowman was up in fourth ahead of Blaney. Meanwhile, the field fanned out to multiple lanes as Kyle Busch was in ninth behind teammate Hamlin, Logano was in 11th ahead of Truex and Harvick got shuffled back to 16th.
At the Lap 100 mark, Larson continued to lead but was being pressured by teammate Elliott as teammate Byron and Blaney remained in pursuit. Two laps later, Elliott led a lap for himself by a nose, but Larson fought back on the outside lane and in a fierce, side-by-side battle. Meanwhile, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Hamlin and Kyle Busch were in sixth and seventh on fresh tires.
Soon after, the battle for the lead became a three-car battle as Byron joined the fight for the top spot along with teammates Larson and Elliott. By then, all four Hendrick Motorsports competitors were running first through fourth as Larson retained the lead. Not long after, Byron overtook teammate Elliott for second.
By Lap 110, Larson was leading by two-tenths of a second over teammate Byron while teammate Elliott settled in third, trailing by seven-tenths of a second. Behind, Blaney moved up to fourth followed by Hamlin and Kyle Busch while Bowman slipped back to seventh. DiBenedetto, Reddick and Kurt Busch were in the top 10 ahead of Logano, Harvick, Truex, Keselowski and Chris Buescher.
Ten laps later, Larson extended his advantage to more than a second over teammate Byron as Kyle Busch was up in third place. Teammate Hamlin was in fourth after overtaking Elliott while Blaney fell back to sixth ahead of Bowman, Reddick, DiBenedetto and Kurt Busch.
Another 10 laps later, Larson stabilized his advantage to more than two seconds over teammate Byron, who was told that he does not have enough fuel to complete the remainder of the second stage under green. Kyle Busch was in third followed by teammate Hamlin and Elliott while Blaney, Reddick, Bowman, DiBenedetto and Kurt Busch remained in the top 10.
Soon after, Elliott pitted under green along with teammate Byron, who ended up going with a two-tire pit stop after his crew members had issues changing the right-front tire on the No. 24 machine.
Back on the track and by Lap 140, Larson continued to lead by two seconds over Hamlin and by more than three seconds over Kyle Busch. While Elliott and Byron battled for 23rd, Blaney and Reddick were in the top five.
Through the first 150 laps of the event, Larson was leading by nearly a second over Hamlin and more than two seconds over Kyle Busch. By then, Erik Jones, who was told that he was five laps short in completing the second stage under green, had pitted.
Three laps later, Larson surrendered the lead to pit his No. 5 Tarlton and Son Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE under green. Also pitting were Blaney, Bowman and DiBenedetto while Hamlin took over the lead.
When the second stage concluded on Lap 160, Hamlin notched his 10th stage victory of the season. Kyle Busch settled in second followed by Reddick, Truex, Logano, Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Harvick, Austin Dillon and Bubba Wallace. By then, Elliott was able to race his way back on the lead lap on fresh tires in 17th while names like Byron, Larson, Blaney, DiBenedetto, Bell and Bowman were behind a lap. Byron, though, received the free pass as he was scored the first competitor a lap down.
Under the stage break, the leaders returned to pit road for service and Hamlin retained the lead followed by teammate Truex, Reddick, teammate Kyle Busch, Harvick and Logano.
With 101 laps remaining and the track falling into dark, night conditions, the final stage commenced. At the start, teammates Truex and Hamlin battled dead even through the backstretch until Truex cleared Hamlin entering Turn 3.
The following lap, however, Hamlin muscled his way back into the lead. Behind, a three-wide battle for third place occurred between Reddick, Kyle Busch and Harvick as Reddick prevailed entering the backstretch. Another lap later, Reddick moved up to second after passing Truex. Behind, Harvick battled Truex for third while Logano moved up to fifth ahead of Kyle Busch and Elliott.
With 90 laps remaining, Hamlin was leading by nearly three-tenths of a second over Reddick while Truex, Elliott and Kyle Busch were in the top five. Kurt Busch was in sixth ahead of Keselowski and Harvick while Logano and Briscoe were in the top 10. Meanwhile, Byron was in 12th in between Austin Dillon and Wallace while Larson was in 15th behind Blaney.
Down to the final 75 laps of the event, Hamlin continued to lead by nearly four-tenths of a second over Reddick while Truex, Elliott and Kyle Busch remained in the top five. By then, Byron was up in seventh, Harvick was in ninth, Logano was in 11th and Larson was mired back in 15th behind Daniel Suarez and Bubba Wallace.
Fifteen laps later, Hamlin extended his advantage to more than a second over Reddick. Truex and Elliott remained in the top five while Byron was back in the top five, moving into fifth ahead of the Busch brothers.
Not long after, green flag pit stops ignited as Kyle Busch pitted followed by Truex, Bowman, Almirola, Byron, Elliott, Blaney, Harvick, Harvick, Larson, Hamlin and others. During the pit stops, Bowman pitted for a second time due to a punctured wheel.
Down to the final 50 laps of the event and with the majority of the pit stops complete, Reddick, who has yet to pit, was leading followed by Keselowski, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. By then, Kurt Busch pitted.
Once Reddick pitted his No. 8 Caterpillar Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, Keselowski led for four laps before pitting and giving the lead to Austin Dillon.
With 43 laps remaining, Byron, who was in fifth, fell off the pace and was forced to pit under green due to a flat right-rear tire.
Three laps later, Austin Dillon, who has yet to pit, continued to lead followed by Hamlin, who trailed by more than 13 seconds. Elliott was in third while Truex and Kyle Busch were in the top five. Reddick was back in sixth ahead of Blaney, Harvick, Bell and Kurt Busch.
Another two laps later, Austin Dillon pitted and Hamlin returned to the lead, thus completing the cycle of green flag pit stops.
Down to the final 30 laps of the event, Hamlin was leading by less than a second over Elliott while Truex, Kyle Busch and Reddick remained in the top five. Meanwhile, Harvick was in seventh behind Blaney, Logano was in 10th behind teammate Keselowski and Kurt Busch and Larson was in 11th. Behind, there were three Playoff contenders mired a lap behind: Byron in 21st, Bowman in 23rd and Bell, who was two laps down, in 25th.
With 20 laps remaining, Hamlin continued to lead by nearly two seconds over Elliott while third-place Kyle Busch trailed by nearly nine seconds. Truex remained in fourth while Reddick was under pressure by Blaney for fifth. By then, Larson cracked the top 10.
Down to the final 10 laps of the event, Hamlin stabilized his advantage to more than a second over Elliott.
With five laps remaining, Elliott cut the deficit down to Hamlin to nine-tenths of a second, but Hamlin, despite navigating his way through lapped traffic, remained in the lead.
When the white flag waved and the final lap started, Hamlin was leading by three-tenths of a second over Elliott, who closed the gap and was closing hard for the win. Despite being pressured by Elliott for a final lap, Hamlin was able to smoothly navigate his way around the circuit and claim the checkered flag along with the victory by four-tenths of a second over Elliott.
With his second victory of the season and first at Vegas, Hamlin also achieved his 46th NASCAR Cup Series career win, which moved him into a tie with the late NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker for 17th place on the all-time wins list. In addition, Hamlin is the lone competitor to be guaranteed a spot in the Round of 8 in the 2021 Cup Playoffs.
“Just so happy for our FedEx Office team,” Hamlin said on NBCSN. “Joe Gibbs Racing just gives us great race cars. That’s what I’m so proud of is to drive for those guys. Can’t thank them enough for everything they do. Vegas, it feels so good to win in Vegas. Last couple times, I’ve been so close and just didn’t have the right breaks, but [the crew] dialed the car in great. Great to hold those guys off. I’m so happy to not have to worry about the next two weeks, but I’m a professional, so I’m gonna work just as hard each and every week to win.”
Elliott, who led a single lap, finished in second place for the sixth time this season while Kyle Busch ended up in third place in his 600th Cup career start at his home track. Both Cup champions are above the top-eight cutline.
“Yeah, we were really close,” Elliott said. “Just not quite close enough. Denny did a good job controlling the gap to me. He was having a hard time with [DiBenedetto]. I think he was doing a good job of giving himself enough room to be able to work the lanes and control the gap back to me. Super close. Really proud of our NAPA team. I feel like we’ve been performing at a really nice level the last three or four weeks. We just haven’t had great results to show for it. Proud of the effort tonight. I’m look forward to the next two [races]. It’s gonna be wild, so looking forward to it.”
“We got all we could,” Busch added. “I felt like during the daytime, we were a little bit better than [Hamlin]. We could race with him. I was looking forward to the lights coming on and us picking up speed and being able to rip the wall a little bit faster. When we got hit into the fence there off of [Turn] 2, the first time, it knocked speed out of our car. We helped it a little bit, coming to pit road, putting the last set of tires on it and I got it into the fence again, was trying to get by a lapped car. Not enough room over there, I guess, but overall, great job by [crew chief] Ben [Beshore] and my guys on this M&M’s Camry. They gave me a good piece. We moved forward all day long, so that was good. Good showing.”
Truex finished fourth while Blaney fended off Reddick to finish fifth on the track. Both Truex and Blaney are also above the top-eight cutline following Vegas.
“We just never could quite get the balance right,” Truex said. “Really struggled off of Turn 4 all day long, no matter what we did. Not sure exactly why. It’s not really something we’ve had here in the past, but definitely something going on there. We couldn’t fix it. We tried a lot. We made a lot of adjustments. [Crew chief] James [Small] and the guys did a really good job executing. We got all we could out of it. The Bass Pro Toyota was just a little bit off tonight. Wish we could’ve been better, but all in all, to grind out a fourth with that car was a good effort…Nothing bad happened to us. Everybody did a good job. Cross our fingers and cross our toes, do some praying this week and go to Talladega. See what happens.”
Reddick was the highest non-Playoff contender in sixth while Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Harvick and Larson finished in the top 10. Logano settled in 11th while Byron, Bowman and Bell finished 18th, 22nd and 24th, respectively.
“We just kind of grind all day,” Keselowski said. “No point were we the fastest car, but we executed really, really well. The pit crew did an awesome job. We’re not beating ourselves, whether it’s the things falling off the car or making big mistakes to get in trouble. I’m proud of that. This is a really dangerous team with the execution we have right now. If we can just find a little bit of speed, we can win races and win a championship. We don’t have that today, but we’re still soldering through, scoring a lot of points and putting ourselves in a good position.”
“The balance never really changed on our Subway Ford Mustang,” Harvick said. “Just kept plugging away at it and way better than we were last time. Made up some points and go to the next one. [Talladega]’ll be the same as this week. Just go try to score stage points, try to put yourself in the best position possible and go from there. I’ve done it all year. It’s an old story, right?”
“We didn’t make the right decision in the second stage,” Larson said. “We stayed out, got caught where we didn’t have enough fuel and had to pit, went a lap down because of it. Had to do the wave around, was on older tires…just hard battling through there. Just a battle. Had to keep my head on straight there, but we were able to dig through it and come away with a top 10. It surely should’ve been a lot better, but we were to still salvage an OK day. Get a stage win, get another Playoff point. That was good…It is what it is. We’ll go on to Talladega now and try to miss some chaos.”
“Nothing really went as planned,” Logano said. “We were definitely better in the daytime when the track was hot. It was probably our best run. Unfortunately, that was when we had a loose wheel and had to pit before the green flag after the [competition] caution. That kind of took away some stage points there. Got some stage points in the second round and there in the end, lot the handle a little bit as the track went cool. Lost some speed on top of that and had another vibration. Pretty much, nothing went good at the end of the race. Maybe, we should be happy with an 11th after all of that and we’re fighting through it, but definitely want to be a little bit more comfortable with the Pennzoil Mustang going into Talladega. All in all, we got what we could out of it for today. Left some still on the table, though. That’s probably the most frustrating part.”
“I thought we were really fast,” Byron said. “We came from the back to the front, took the lead and then obviously, had that caution. I chose the wrong lane there and had to run second there for awhile to Kyle. And then we had the strategy deal with not being able to make it on fuel and had to recover from that. We had to take two tires and that hurt us. We were able to drive all the way back to the front from the back again, so that was twice today. And then we had the flat tire. We had an awesome car. The No. 24 AXALTA Chevrolet was amazing. I think it was right there with [Hamlin]. [I] Never got to really race him straight up. We’ll just have to keep bringing that speed.”
There were 21 lead changes for 10 different leaders. The race featured four cautions for 21 laps. Only 12 of 38 competitors finished on the lead lap
1. Denny Hamlin, 137 laps led, Stage 2 winner
2. Chase Elliott, one lap led
3. Kyle Busch, two laps led
4. Martin Truex Jr., one lap led
5. Ryan Blaney, eight laps led
6. Tyler Reddick, five laps led
7. Brad Keselowski, four laps led
8. Kurt Busch
9. Kevin Harvick
10. Kyle Larson, 95 laps led, Stage 1 winner
11. Joey Logano
12. Matt DiBenedetto
13. Austin Dillon, one lap down, seven laps led
14. Chase Briscoe, one lap down
15. Daniel Suarez, one lap down
16. Bubba Wallace, one lap down
17. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., one lap down
18. William Byron, one lap down, seven laps led
19. Aric Almirola, one lap down
20. Ryan Newman, one lap down
21. Michael McDowell, one lap down
22. Alex Bowman, two laps down
23. Ross Chastain, two laps down
24. Christopher Bell, two laps down
25. Chris Buescher, two laps down
26. Erik Jones, two laps down
27. Anthony Alfredo, two laps down
28. Ryan Preece, two laps down
29. Cole Custer, two laps down
30. Corey LaJoie, three laps down
31. Cody Ware, seven laps down
32. Justin Haley, seven laps down
33. BJ McLeod, 10 laps down
34. Quin Houff, 12 laps down
35. Garrett Smithley, 13 laps down
36. Josh Bilicki, 15 laps down
37. Joey Gase – OUT, Accident
38. JJ Yeley – OUT
Bold indicates Playoff contenders.
1. Denny Hamlin – Advanced
2. Kyle Larson, +57
3. Kyle Busch, +35
4. Martin Truex Jr., +31
5. Ryan Blaney, +24
6. Chase Elliott, +22
7. Joey Logano, +6
8. Brad Keselowski, +4
9. William Byron, -4
10. Kevin Harvick, -7
11. Alex Bowman, -13
12. Christopher Bell, -25
Next on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs schedule is Talladega Superspeedway for the second Round of 12 event. The race is scheduled to occur on Sunday, October 3, at 2 p.m. ET on NBC.