Kyle Larson is guaranteed a chance to compete for his second title in the NASCAR Cup Series at Phoenix, after a valiant effort to hold off Christopher Bell for the victory in the South Point 400.
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion led a race-high 133 laps in Sunday’s event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and after numerous differing strategies throughout the race, was able to rely on his pit crew to put the No. 5 Chevrolet in the lead with 44 laps to go.
Throughout what ended up being the race’s final green-flag run, lasting 45 laps, Larson put the raw speed of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on display, stretching his lead to more than two seconds over then-second-place runner Brad Keselowski.
The entire paradigm of the event shifted in the closing laps of the event, though, when polesitter Christopher Bell took over the runner-up spot, with what appeared to be a significantly faster car than Larson.
Bell, who had maintained a top-five position throughout the afternoon, began reeling in Larson in the closing stages of the race, cutting what seemed to be tenths of a second off of the margin that the No. 5 Chevrolet held.
While it didn’t end up being enough for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, the finish was likely too close for the comfort of Kyle Larson, who only beat the No. 20 Toyota Camry TRD to the start-finish line by 0.082 seconds — the second-closest Cup Series finish at Las Vegas.
“I could see him coming in my mirror, for sure, and was hoping that those lappers were going to give me the bottom,” said Larson after the race. “The No. 38 peeled off to the bottom, and I knew I couldn’t follow him. I just didn’t want to go all the way to the top and leave the middle open.”
The finishing results weren’t necessarily a forgone conclusion on the race’s final lap, either, as Larson had to block a couple of advances from Bell, as his fellow post-season competitor looked for room to get around him on the outside.
“Thankfully, Christopher [Bell] always races extremely clean,” Larson added. “It could have gotten crazier than it did coming to the start-finish line, so thank you to him for racing with respect there. What a job done by my team, too. Just a great race car. I almost gave it away there in one and two, getting sideways, hitting into the wall. Had to fight back there with our balance. They got it much closer there in the lead.”
Christopher Bell finished in the runner-up position on Sunday, just one spot short of automatically locking himself into the ‘Championship 4’ for a second consecutive season. Kyle Busch came home in third, with fellow non-playoff drivers Brad Keselowski and Ross Chastain rounding out the top five.
Ryan Blaney came home with a sixth-place finish, rising above the struggles that Team Penske has shown on the intermediate track this season, with William Byron finishing just behind him in seventh. Tyler Reddick, Martin Truex, Jr., and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-10.
Chris Buescher, driving the No. 17 Ford Mustang for RFK Racing, was the only post-season driver who failed to finish inside the top-10 in Sunday’s South Point 400, finishing in 11th place.
Leaving Sunday’s event at Las Vegas, Larson has locked up one of four available spots in the final round of the Playoffs at Phoenix, while William Byron (+9), Denny Hamlin (+2), and Martin Truex, Jr. (+2) currently hold the final spots based on points position.
Heading to Homestead-Miami, Christopher Bell (-2), Tyler Reddick (-16), Ryan Blaney (-17), and Chris Buescher (-23) all sit in a position where they’ll try to make up points, to have a shot at advancing to Phoenix.