LAS VEGAS – In just his fourth race as a driver with Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Larson completed his comeback to the NASCAR Cup Series with a victory Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
After losing his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing and sitting out most of last season while under suspension for using racially-insensitive language, Larson came back to stock-car racing this year largely due to the belief that car owner Rick Hendrick had in his abilities.
Those abilities were on full display in Sin City, with Larson rim-riding when he needed to and moving down the track when situations warranted. In the end, he dominated both the box score and the finish.
Larson led six times for a race-high 103 of 267 laps, winning the second stage and largely dominating the final stage as well. He beat runner-up Brad Keselowski to the checkered flag by 3.156 seconds.
It made for an emotional victory lane celebration, as Larson soaked in his seventh career Cup Series win and first since October of 2019 during the playoffs at Dover (Del.) Int’l Speedway.
“This was such an awesome race car. Cliff (Daniels, crew chief) and everybody did a great job preparing this piece. It was so much fun to drive,” noted Larson. “I could go wherever I wanted to. I knew we had a really good car once we got single-filed out; but just drafting early in the run was tough. Thank you so much to Mr. Hendrick, Jeff Gordon, and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for the amazing opportunity I’ve been given.
“This is definitely special.”
While there were no cautions for incident in the first two stages, the final stage featured two notable incidents before a long green-flag run broke out to close the afternoon.
Larson led the field to the start of the final stage with 100 laps to go, pacing the action briefly, but was stifled by a caution with 98 to go after defending series champion Chase Elliott got loose exiting turn two and spun down the backstretch – just clipping Kurt Busch as he fought to save his Chevrolet.
Elliott was able to continue, but up front, Denny Hamlin was scored as the leader after just edging out Larson for the top spot prior to the yellow flag waving for the fifth time.
Racing resumed with 83 laps left, with Hamlin leading the first lap after the restart but a duel breaking out between he and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr., shortly after.
The action was slowed once more with 88 to go, when Aric Almirola cut down a left-front tire and pounded the wall in turn two to bring out the sixth and final caution of the day.
That led to split pit strategy, with Larson leading one group down pit road while Hamlin and Truex stayed on track with 14 others, making for an eclectic mix of tire wear and contenders at the front.
Larson restarted 17th but rocketed back to second in just 11 laps as his newer tires took hold. He resumed command on lap 206, leading from there until his final pit stop under green 20 laps later.
The Elk Grove, Calif., driver missed pit road the first time by – pinned on the top lane by the slower car of Timmy Hill – but got down for service after that and came out in front of Keselowski by a half second.
Following the final cycle of green-flag pit stops, Larson led the last 30 laps of the race, making the definitive pass of Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez on lap 238 en route to the victory.
“That was some fun racing on the restarts, so I hope everybody enjoyed it. I know I did,” noted Larson. “I had fun racing Brad (Keselowski) and Denny (Hamlin) and everybody and tried to give it away there coming to a green flag stop; but thankfully we had a good enough car to hold them all off.”
Keselowski was still pleased with his runner-up finish, running across the infield grass to congratulate Larson before returning to pit road and discussing his day.
“I’m just really happy for (Larson); I know he’s been through a lot in the last year and he’s a good kid who I’ve known for a little while and he has a good family. I’m just happy to see him bounce back,” Keselowski said. “He was really fast – had a lot of speed in all the lanes which was really impressive, usually you have to make a compromise, but they were really good.
“If Kyle Larson wasn’t here, we would have had a dominant day,” Keselowski added with a smile.
The Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Truex combined to lead 53 laps, but crossed the finish line third, fourth and sixth, respectively.
Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate, Ryan Blaney, broke up the JGR contingent by finishing fifth.
Behind Truex, Christopher Bell, Homestead winner William Byron, two-time defending race winner Joey Logano and Erik Jones closed the top 10.
Twenty-seven lead changes punctuated the day among 12 different drivers, with Keselowski and Larson splitting the first two stages – the first stage win of the season for both men.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action March 14 at Arizona’s Phoenix Raceway. Chase Elliott is the most recent winner at the one-mile desert oval, securing his championship title there last November.