After beginning the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with his first win of the season at Darlington Raceway, Denny Hamlin notched his second win of the season Sunday night in the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to kick off round two of the playoffs.
“So happy for our FedEx Office Toyota team. Joe Gibbs Racing just gives us great race cars,” Hamlin said. “That’s what I’m so proud of is to drive for those guys. Can’t thank them enough for everything they do. It feels so good to win in Vegas. Last couple times I’ve been so close; just didn’t have the right breaks. They dialed the car in great. Great to hold those guys off.”
Chase Elliott challenged Hamlin in the final laps before finishing with runner-up honors.
“We were really close, just not quite close enough,” Elliott said. “Denny did a good job of controlling the gap to me. He was having a hard time with the 21 [lapped car of Matt DiBenedetto]. I think he was doing a good job of giving himself enough room to him to be able to work the lanes, kind of control the gap back to me. Super close. Really proud of our NAPA team. 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. Looking forward to the next two. Going to be wild. Looking forward to it.”
Three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers finished in the top-four, with Hamlin’s teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. finished third and fourth, respectively. Truex’s top-five came after having to drop to the back at the start of the race because of two pre-race inspection failures.
“Our Bass Pro Camry was off just a little bit all day,” Truex said. “We could never get turn four to do what I needed it to do, and then, the long runs, I’d get really, really tight and it would quit turning. I feel like we kind of overachieved. I don’t know that we were the fourth-best car and we got fourth, so overall, happy with the execution. We did everything right. We just didn’t quite have the speed we needed.”
Ryan Blaney rounded out the too-five.
“I thought a couple of cars were a little quicker than us,” Blaney said. “We got behind the eight-ball a little bit, there, in that second stage having to pit at the end and take the wave-around. That hurt us. We had a fast enough Menards Ford Mustang to finish fifth. That is something to be proud of. We will go on to Talladega.”
Kyle Larson was the most dominant driver in the first 160 laps that made up the first two stages of the race, including a stage-one win on lap 80. Even though Larson started on the pole, his first lap led didn’t come until lap 45 when he passed Hamlin.
Blaney, who started on the front row alongside Larson, led the opening lap. Hamlin, though, led most of the first 44 laps after getting by Blaney on lap eight.
Larson’s downfall seemed to be pit strategy early in the second stage. Hamlin was up front for the restart at the beginning of stage two, but Larson retook the lead on lap 89. After retaking the lead, Larson was among a handful of drivers who stayed out during a caution for Joey Gase on lap 92. Meanwhile, Hamlin and most other drivers pitted.
They yellow flag waved a total of four times in the 267-lap race, including the cautions at the end of each of the first two stages and a lap-25 caution. The caution when the left-rear wheel came off Gase’s car was the only yellow flag for an on-track incident. After a hard impact with the wall, Gase was transported to a local hospital.
After staying out during the caution, Larson was among the drivers who had to pit under green late in the stage. He gave up the lead to pit on lap 153. Hamlin inherited the lead to claim the stage-two win on lap 160 while Larson was a lap down.
Larson stayed out during the caution that followed stage two to take the wave-around and get back on the lead lap. As Hamlin continued to lead, Larson restarted 19th and failed to return to the top-10 of the running order until late in the race to finish 10th after leading 95 laps.
“We stayed out and had to do the wave-around. I wasn’t on fresh tires and stuck in traffic,” Larson said. “Everyone is fighting so hard back there to run their race that I just got kind of stuck. Not beat around, but just stuck and having to race. It’s just hard. We were able to fight back for a top-10 and come away with an okay finish.”
Hamlin remained up front for most of the remainder of the race, with the exception of a final round of green-flag pit stops inside the final 65 laps. Hamlin gave up the lead to make his final green-flag pit stop on lap 214. He cycled back to the lead on lap 229. By the checkered flag, Hamlin amassed a tally of a race-high 137 laps led.
Other top-10 finishers included Tyler Reddick in sixth, Brad Keselowski in seventh, Kurt Busch in eighth, and Kevin Harvick in ninth.
“It wasn’t a bad night. We executed really, really well and made the most of what we had,” Keselowski said. “That was just all we had. We just kind of rode in 10th to 15th most of the day, and at one point, we got up to seventh or eighth but couldn’t really hold it. At the end, we just really executed really well. The pit stops were great. The pit calls were good. No loose wheels or any troubles, and we were able to get a solid day out of it to get ourselves a little cushion.”