By Adam Carabine & Crystal Clay
LAS VEGAS - The first spot of the Championship 4 was filled on Sunday, as Kyle Larson won the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Larson’s victory, his fourth of the season, came at the first race of the Round of 8, punching his ticket to the final race for the NASCAR Championship in Phoenix.
On paper, it might look like Larson dominated the race. He led 133 laps, the most of any driver, and swept both stages. However, it was anything but a cakewalk. Larson thought that the Next-Gen Cup car played a role in that.
“Whatever it is about the next-gen car, I’m sure it was just an accident when they built it - I don’t mean that negatively - but I don’t think anybody can draw a car up to where you’re almost at a disadvantage while leading,” he said.
“With the next-gen car, the leader just has so much more load with the clean air on your car that you wear out the right rear tire so much faster. That’s why the leader always gets loose. It just makes the racing really tight, because the leader has his hands full after 15-20 laps and can’t really get away. That’s what I was fighting with in the end.”
There was also a wild save off of turn 2 in the second stage.
His back end started to spin out, tagged the wall with his right rear, and was somehow able to correct it and continue on.
“I was getting really loose at that point. It’s so bumpy in 1 and 2, that when you are loose, it makes it even worse coming across those bumps. I got a little out of shape, had a moment, and thought I had it saved. It just stepped out really quick.”
Crew chief Cliff Daniels was asked about the save and said, “Huge credit to [Larson], it was a ridiculous save.” On a scale of 1-10, he mentioned that while everyone would likely give it a 10, he gave it a 9.4. “If he wants a 10, well don’t hit the wall!” he said with a laugh.
In the closing moments of the race, Larson’s lead over 2nd-placed finisher Christopher Bell got up to 1.5 seconds, but Bell was determined. Over the final 20 laps, Bell closed in steadily. Eventually Larson held on, but the gap was only 0.082 seconds.
Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon was on the edge of his seat, saying “My gosh what a nail-biter in those last few laps. You saw Bell really working the outside lane.”
With his win today, Larson can worry a bit less over the next two races at Homestead-Miami and Martinsville, as he is locked into the Final Four. While his four wins this year is less than the 10 he earned over his 2021 Championship-winning season, Larson said that this year feels quite similar.
“I know in the win column it doesn’t show that, but in sheer speed and stuff, I feel like we’ve been very similar to where we were in 2021. We’ve probably contended for as many wins as we did then. It’s just, these next-gen races are tougher to win. Thankfully we’re in position like we were in 2021, and hopefully we can cap it off like we did then too.”
Cliff Daniels took it a step further, saying, “I think as a team, we’re significantly stronger [than 2021]. Results don’t show it at all. The reason I say that is we’ve had two more years to gel together, to work together - the chemistry has only gotten stronger. The two years under our belt, mixed with such a volatile season that we’ve had, I think our team is in a very, very strong position right now.”
Note: Ryan Blaney's No. 12 failed post-race inspection. His left front shock did not meet the overall specified length.
Playoff cut-line after the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:
Kyle Larson: ADV
William Byron: +11
Denny Hamlin: +4
Martin Truex Jr.: +3
- - - - - -
Christopher Bell: -3
Tyler Reddick: -16
Chris Buescher: -23
Ryan Blaney: -56