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Flawless Execution Leads Kyle Larson to Victory in Southern 500 at Darlington

Kyle Larson scored the victory in Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, holding back a hard-fought challenge from Tyler Reddick and others in the race’s closing laps. Photo Credit: Tyson Gifford, Racing America

There’s no question that Kyle Larson has shown the speed necessary to score several victories in the NASCAR Cup Series this year. But, time after time, errors in execution have prevented the No. 5 Chevrolet from getting to victory lane.

In Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, the opening race of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Larson and his Hendrick Motorsports crew executed flawlessly, and as a result, find themselves in victory lane at the end of the night – and locked into the next round of the post-season. 

“Yeah, finally from start to finish,” Larson said about the execution from his team on Sunday. “18th to third in the first stage, I didn’t think that was possible. Our race car was really good when the sun was out. Just had to work on it.”

The Elk Grove, California native started Sunday’s 500-mile gauntlet from 18th, making his subsequent triumph the lowest starting spot by any Darlington winner since Regan Smith scored the victory from 23rd in 2011.

“I messed up once and got it hung in neutral, and 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,” Larson added. “Definitely had to fight it more than I was earlier, but we kept our heads in the game. That was really important. This race is all about keeping your head in it.”

Larson was able to take control of the event with 55 laps remaining, after a caution in the middle of green-flag pit stops – for a spin by Ryan Newman – shuffled the field dramatically in the race’s final stage.

Kevin Harvick, who had just taken the lead mere seconds before, was on his way to the pits when the caution flew, but failed to make it to the commitment line before the pits closed, making the pit stop performed illegal.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was poised to cycle into the lead, but had to serve a tail-end of the longest line penalty, as a result of the poorly-timed pit stop. Harvick would only rebound to finish 19th.

Over the course of the race’s final 55 laps, Larson was able to remain in front of Tyler Reddick, who competed for the lead throughout the entirety of the event, maintaining a gap of about a half-second throughout the final run.

At the checkered flag, Larson would finish 0.447 seconds ahead of Reddick, who was left to defend a major charge from several drivers that would finish just behind him, in the closing laps of the race.

“Adding this trophy to the collection is going to be amazing, and just such a prestigious race,” said the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion. “This is one of three or four crown jewels, and I feel like besides the 500 maybe the only one I haven’t won yet. We get to hopefully go back to the Brickyard next year on the oval and would love to win that one, too.

Chris Buescher continued an incredible streak of finishes with a third-place result in the Cook Out Southern 500, while William Byron and Ross Chastain completed the top five.

Chastain, who many considered to be in trouble following a weak showing in practice and qualifying, spent much of the race in the mid-20s, but as the lights came on and darkness came over Darlington Raceway, the Trackhouse Racing driver moved up the pack.

Brad Keselowski came home in sixth-place, after making a last-ditch effort to gain track position by bolting on four brand-new tires with 33 laps to go in the event, driving through the field from outside the top-15 into sixth.

Bubba Wallace finished in seventh, followed by Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Erik Jones, who continued a streak of solid runs at Darlington Raceway for LEGACY MOTOR CLUB.

Kyle Busch and Joey Logano finished just outside the top-10 in 11th and 12th, putting together decent days for their NASCAR Playoff hopes.

Denny Hamlin, winner of Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series event, clearly had the best car all afternoon, leading a race-high 177 of 367 laps, but finished in 25th, after several problems in the closing laps of the race.

Initially, it was what Hamlin believed to be a loose wheel after a green-flag pit stop, that forced the 50-time NASCAR Cup Series winner to return to pit road. However, the team couldn’t find any indication of that issue.

Then, attempting to claw his way back through traffic, Hamlin was involved in the final accident of the afternoon, which also caused damage to Playoff competitors Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell.

Bell, the polesitter of Sunday’s 367-lap contest, had a difficult afternoon at Darlington Raceway, after a slow pit stop on the first round of green-flag pit stops put him behind his biggest competitors.

To make matters even worse, when trying to rebound and get positions back, the driver of the No. 20 Toyota Camry smacked the outside wall pretty hard, damaging the car pretty severely, to the point where it was nearly undrivable.

The issues continued to compound, as Bell was then involved in two separate accidents in the final 150 laps of the race – one with Ty Gibbs and Austin Cindric, and the other with his teammate Denny Hamlin.

Bell would come home 23rd, five spots behind regular-season champion Martin Truex, Jr., who much like teammate Denny Hamlin, had a loose wheel under a green-flag pit stop. Then, the team appeared to brutally misjudge the necessary adjustments, causing him to fade as far back as 28th on raw pace.

Leaving Darlington, the NASCAR Cup Series gets ready to return to the intermediate tracks, as the series travels to Kansas Speedway for the Hollywood Casino 400, where the field returns for the second time this season.

Entering the second race of the first round of the post-season, Bubba Wallace, Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., and Michael McDowell find themselves on the bad side of the cutline.

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