It took just four races for Kyle Larson to go to Victory Lane as a Hendrick Motorsports driver. On Sunday, he led 103 of 267 laps in the NASCAR Cup Series‘ Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway en route to the victory.
Harvick quickly sank like a rock as he was swarmed by Hendrick team-mates Byron and Larson; after five laps, Harvick was out of the top five, and he dropped out of the top ten by lap eight. Hendrick’s other drivers Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman also made their presences felt: the former reached second by lap five while the latter entered the top ten as the race crossed the double-digit mark afer starting twenty-sixth.
Elliott passed Byron for the lead on lap 20, five laps before the scheduled competition caution. When the yellow came out, Elliott led Larson and Byron. However, the leader lost six spots on pit road after reversing his car in order to safely exit his stall without hitting Anthony Alfredo. Byron also dropped three places, while Larson was the first out of the pits ahead of Denny Hamlin. Bubba Wallace received a speeding penalty and returned to pit road, as did Austin Dillon.
The race resumed on lap 31 as Hamlin, with Brad Keselowski in tow, took the lead on the inside. A caution for debris on the frontstretch took place on lap 47, granting a break for Harvick whose left-front tyre had gone down after making contact with Erik Jones. Meanwhile, Wallace pitted again to address a power steering issue, the result of a damaged O-ring in the steering pump, dropping him three laps down.
The next restart came on lap 51 as Elliott pushed Joey Logano to the lead before he took the lead himself on lap 62. Keselowski caught Elliott and passed him to retake the position on lap 72 and agaain on lap 79, the latter of which he held to take his first stage victory. Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Hamlin, Bowman, Christopher Bell, Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, Logano, and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top ten.
Hamlin exited pit road first while Elliott had a prolonged stop to repair damage from a stuck jack during an earlier stop, causing him to restart twenty-eighth. Tyler Reddick was penalised for speeding between stages. Josh Bilicki briefly exited the race before returning three laps down; while few expected him to be a contender, one exception was Chuck Brennan, the CEO of his sponsor Dollar Loan Center, who raised eyebrows when he placed a $10,000 wager that could have become a $10 million pay day from the Circa sportsbook had he won.
The second stage opened on lap 88 as Hamlin led Keselowski, but the latter took the spot a lap later with Team Penske team-mate Blaney following. Penske ally DiBenedetto joined them in the top three before being passed by Larson and Byron. Larson became the leader on lap 107 with Byron in tow.
Green-flag stops began on lap 122, with Larson heading in three laps later. Byron inherited the lead before he pitted on lap 129, enabling Reddick to spend time in front. When Reddick went to the pits on lap 136, Michael McDowell became the leader.
McDowell, his Front Row Motorsports team-mate Anthony Alfredo, Corey LaJoie, and Daniel Suárez operated on an differing pit strategy from the field as they had last pitted before Stage #2 began, but gradually hit pit road as the laps ticked down. Suárez was the first of the quartet on lap 145, followed by McDowell on 146. Alfredo’s lead, albeit brief, allowed him to lead his first career laps in the Cup Series before being passed by Larson on the backstretch on lap 147. The last two of the four finally pitted on laps 148 and 149.
Larson built a comfortable margin over Keselowski en route to his first stage win since the 2019 Charlotte Roval race. Hamlin, Byron, Blaney, Bowman, Bell, Truex, Kyle Busch, and Elliott also received stage points.
Larson and Hamlin led the field off pit road and to the green flag on lap 168. Byron stalled as he exited his box and restarted twelfth.
A push from Hamlin allowed Larson to clear Truex, but he quickly faced challenges from the two Joe Gibbs Racing team-mates and their compatriot Busch. On lap 169, Elliott got loose on the backstretch while running eleventh and spun, tapping Kurt Busch but avoiding further damage. It was the third straight week in which the reigning champion had to make a save, escaping hitting a signboard at the Daytona road course and sliding up the track but dodging a hit from behind by Keselowski at Homestead.
Hamlin and Larson comprised the front row once again for the lap 174 restart. Hamlin and Truex pulled ahead on the outside. On lap 178, Aric Almirola suffered a flat left-front tyre and hit the turn one wall.
Another restart came on lap 184 as Hamlin and Truex battled for the lead, and the latter cleared him to take the spot after a lap. Hamlin regained the lead on lap 192, leading for fourteen laps before losing the spot to Larson. LaJoie retired from the race with a rear end failure; it was his second consecutive DNF for mechanical issues after exiting Homestead for a blown engine.
The green-flag pit cycle opened with 50 laps to go. Larson pitted on lap 224, giving Suárez the lead ahead of Custer. While Custer pitted on lap 228, Suárez once again operated on the same strategy as in Stage #2 and continued to stay out before being overtaken by Larson on lap 237. Suárez finally hit pit road on lap 243.
When Bowman tried to pit due to a flat tyre, he nearly collided with Alfredo as the rookie drove by. After the near miss, Bowman received a penalty for a commitment line violation.
Keselowski could not catch Larson as he drove off to his seventh career win and first as a Hendrick driver. It is Larson’s first Cup victory on a 1.5-mile track, his first in the series as a whole since the 2019 fall Dover event, and the maiden triumph for crew chief Cliff Daniels.
“It was such an awesome race car,” Larson told Fox. “It was so much fun to drive. I could go wherever I wanted to. I knew I had a really good car once we kind of get single filed out, but just drafting early in the run was tough. […] This is definitely special.”
While a strong performance, stories will certainly include mention of his suspension in 2020 for saying a racial slur during an iRacing stream, which also resulted in his firing from Chip Ganassi Racing. With his reinstatement process making strides, he was formally reinstated by NASCAR later in the year and joined Hendrick. Hendrick supported giving Larson a second chance as he made efforts to change, and the team revived their longtime #5; the win is the first for the number since the 2017 Indianapolis race with Kasey Kahne. Larson’s HendrickCars.com livery is also a tribute to owner Rick Hendrick‘s late son Ricky.
“This is Rick’s most special paint scheme for obvious reasons,” Larson added. “It’s just an honour for me to be able to drive it. Our first time out with this colour scheme. Like I said, it is blessed.”
Of course, it is understandable to still hesitate in calling his return a “redemption” as the circumstances developed from actions of his own doing, especially as a Hendrick ride is a significant upgrade from Ganassi’s. While one’s judgment of Larson and whether he has bettered himself will vary, only he has the knowledge of if it happened and its extent. Nevertheless, many of his peers and those in the industry, while still aware of how events transpired, issued their commendations. Bill Lester, a black driver who ran full-time in the now-Camping World Truck Series in the 2000s who publicly critcised Larson in the wake of the suspension, tweeted that Larson’s “talent was never in quesiton, only one of your decisions”, but he also got his “second chance and absolutely made the most of it!”
Ganassi tweeted his praises for his former driver, calling it a “nice comeback to @NASCAR”. Wallace, the lone black full-time driver in the Cup Series and a close friend of Larson, visited him in Victory Lane to give congratulations.
“It meant a lot to have Bubba come to Victory Lane,” Larson added in a press conference. “He always does a really good job of congratulating the winners. I saw him waiting to say hi or whatever to me as I ran over there, and just had a quick moment with him. He said congrats. He’s always believed in me, so that was special.”
Elsewhere in the field, Jones finished tenth for Richard Petty Motorsports‘ first top ten in a non-superspeedway race since Wallace finished in the same position at Michigan last summer. McDowell and Harvick, who were the only Cup drivers to score top tens in every race entering Vegas, had that streak end as they respectively ended their days in seventeenth and twentieth. For Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team, it was an uncharacteristically poor day with Chase Briscoe finishing twenty-first, Custer in twenty-fifth, and Almirola in last.
|1||3||5||Kyle Larson||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||267||Running|
|2||10||2||Brad Keselowski||Team Penske||Ford||267||Running|
|3||14||18||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||267||Running|
|4||6||11||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||267||Running|
|5||26||12||Ryan Blaney||Team Penske||Ford||267||Running|
|6||4||19||Martin Truex Jr.||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||267||Running|
|7||16||20||Christopher Bell||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||267||Running|
|8||2||24||William Byron||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||267||Running|
|9||15||22||Joey Logano||Team Penske||Ford||267||Running|
|10||29||43||Erik Jones||Richard Petty Motorsports||Chevrolet||267||Running|
|11||17||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||267||Running|
|12||12||3||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||267||Running|
|13||8||9||Chase Elliott||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||267||Running|
|14||18||17||Chris Buescher||Roush Fenway Racing||Ford||267||Running|
|15||19||37||Ryan Preece||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||266||Running|
|16||30||21||Matt DiBenedetto||Wood Brothers Racing||Ford||266||Running|
|17||5||34||Michael McDowell||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||266||Running|
|18||13||6||Ryan Newman||Roush Fenway Racing||Ford||266||Running|
|19||7||1||Kurt Busch||Chip Ganassi Racing||Chevrolet||266||Running|
|20||1||4||Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||266||Running|
|21||24||14||Chase Briscoe||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||266||Running|
|22||11||8||Tyler Reddick||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||266||Running|
|23||21||42||Ross Chastain||Chip Ganassi Racing||Chevrolet||266||Running|
|24||27||38||Anthony Alfredo||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||266||Running|
|25||20||41||Cole Custer||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||266||Running|
|26||22||99||Daniel Suárez||Trackhouse Racing Team||Chevrolet||265||Running|
|27||9||48||Alex Bowman||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||265||Running|
|28||23||23||Bubba Wallace||23XI Racing||Toyota||262||Running|
|29||25||77||Justin Haley||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||262||Running|
|30||34||78||B.J. McLeod*||Live Fast Motorsports||Ford||260||Running|
|31||31||53||Garrett Smithley||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||259||Running|
|32||32||51||Cody Ware*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||259||Running|
|33||36||00||Quin Houff||StarCom Racing||Chevrolet||256||Running|
|34||37||15||Joey Gase||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||255||Running|
|35||35||52||Josh Bilicki||Rick Ware Racing||Ford||252||Running|
|36||38||66||Timmy Hill*||MBM Motorsports||Toyota||246||Running|
|37||33||7||Corey LaJoie||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||188||Rear End|
|38||28||10||Aric Almirola||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||178||Accident|
* – Ineligible for Cup points