Kyle Larson closed the first three-race round of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs Saturday night by winning the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was the sixth win of the season for the 2021 regular-season champion, who already led the series in race wins this year.
“Yeah, that was an awesome race. It was so cool to be able to race there for the win,” Larson said. “Obviously, [Kevin] Harvick and Chase [Elliott] got together. Chase was upset. Kind of held him up. It got Harvick having to move around and use his tires up off the bottom. I started to get some dive-ins working off of two, got a big run, decided to pull the trigger, slide him, squeeze him a little bit. Then, he had me jacked up down the frontstretch. It was wild. But had my hands full. Thanks to Valvoline, everybody that helps on this Hendrick Motorsports car. Beautiful paint scheme. Two wins with it. Thanks to Valvoline. Thanks, Mr. H [team owner Rick Hendrick]. Wish you were here. So cool.”
Larson led a race-high 175 laps of the 500-lap race, taking his final lead late on lap 497, soon after contact between his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, and Kevin Harvick in a battle for the top spot. Harvick took the lead from Elliott on lap 465, but contact between the two drivers resulted in a cut tire and and an unscheduled pit stop for Elliott on lap 467. He wound up with a 25th-place finish after leading 129 laps. Larson and Elliott were the only two drivers who tallied more than 100 laps led.
“Well, it’s something he does all the time,” Elliott said of Harvick. “He runs into your left side constantly at other tracks. Sometimes it does cut down your left side. Other times it doesn’t. He did it to me at Darlington a few weeks ago, because he was tired of racing with me. Whether he did it on purpose, it doesn’t matter. At some point, you’ve got to draw the line. I don’t care who he is or how long he’s been doing it. I’m going to stand up for myself and my team and we’ll go on down the road.”
Harvick finished second after leading 71 laps.
“I told him it was kind of a chicken @#@# move that he did there at the end,” Harvick said of a post-race conversation with Elliott that included a shoving match. “We’re racing for the frickin win at Bristol. We’re three-wide in the middle, and he throws a temper tantrum, like I was just trying to get the lead and race him hard. Then, he pulls up in front of me and just sits there until I lose the whole lead, so I just hate it for our Subway Ford Mustang team to be able to lose a race like that. I watched him let the 24 [William Byron] go by and, then, anytime you run into him, it’s a problem. They can boo all they want. I don’t care.”
Elliott was the only Hendrick Motorsports driver outside the top-five at the checkered flag. William Byron finished third and Alex Bowman was fifth. Ryan Blaney was the other top-five finisher in fourth.
With his top-five finish, Byron avoided playoff elimination by a scant two points over both Aric Almirola and Tyler Reddick. Reddick finished 12th and Almirola 18th at Bristol. Kurt Busch and Michael McDowell were the other two drivers eliminated after 19th and 24th-place finishes, respectively, Saturday night.
“It was frustrating,” Almirola said. “ I’m disappointed to have it end like that just because we had battled so much adversity throughout the night and got ourselves in position to where we were running top-10 and doing what we needed to do, and then, that caution came out there at the end where we had 18 laps on our tires and we stayed out, and for whatever reason, when we re-fired on those tires, the car was up on top of the racetrack, skating, wouldn’t turn. I didn’t have any side bite and just struggling. I don’t know. That’s not the way we wanted it to end, but we’ll keep going and battle it out the rest of the playoffs and see if we can’t finish inside the top-10 in points.”
Denny Hamlin and Larson were stage winners in the first half of the Bass Pro Shops night race, with Hamlin winning the first 125-lap stage and Larson the second. Elliott took the lead from pole sitter and Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. on lap six and Elliott and Larson both led laps before Hamlin took the lead from Larson on lap 91.
Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, then, led laps early in the second stage before Larson got off pit road first during a caution for an incident involving Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez and Cole Custer on lap 168. That caution was the first of five for an on-track incident.
Harvick and Blaney led early in the second half of the race after being among a group of drivers who pitted during a caution late in stage two and, then, stayed out during the yellow flag that followed the second stage. Larson retook the lead from Harvick on lap 337.
Larson maintained his lead through a lap-400 battle with Hamlin that ended with Hamlin making contact with the wall and bringing out the eighth and final caution of the race. Larson lost the lead to Elliott, though, a few laps later on lap 413.
Keselowski finished sixth, Truex seventh, Erik Jones eighth, Hamlin ninth, and Matt DiBenedetto rounded out the top-10.
“Really disappointed about today. We were racing to to try to win and cut a tire, there,” Hamlin said. “We were fast; we were so fast. We got under Kyle, there, on that run and cut a tire; then didn’t have a caution there at the end to try to catch back up. Overall, I think we’re doing a great job. Our cars are fast every week.”