DARLINGTON, S.C. – In the opening race of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Kyle Larson locked himself into the Round of 12 and earned the Hendrick Motorsports engine shop its 500th NASCAR national series win. The victory is also the 299th Cup Series triumph for Hendrick Motorsports.
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Larson started the race 18th in the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and wasted no time moving up through the field. He was in the top 10 by lap 27 and got to the top five by lap 70. The 31-year-old driver finished the opening 115-lap stage in third and came in second in stage two.
Early in the final stage, he fell back to fifth after he hit the wall and got hung in neutral. He regained his momentum following a pit stop that cycled him out in fourth. As the caution came out on lap 311, Larson was starting to head towards pit road but alertly stayed out on track. On the ensuing pit stop under yellow, the No. 5 pit crew got Larson the lead off of pit road with a 10.11-second stop. That stop was by the five-man crew of Blaine Anderson (front-tire changer), R.J. Barnette (tie carrier), Brandon Harder (fueler), Brandon Johnson (jackman) and Calvin Teague (rear-tire changer). From there, he led the final 55 laps and held off challenges from Tyler Reddick and Chris Buescher on multiple restarts to earn the victory.
"Proud of this bunch," Larson said. "Pit crew came in clutch there at the end to get us out in the lead. Had some things work out. Staying out when that car was spinning out, too, so just kind of fell in our lap there, and we were able to take advantage of it.
"... What a great way to start the playoffs and hopefully we can keep it going."
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The win is Larson’s third of the season and his first in the Cup Series at Darlington. Prior to this race, he had yet to finish at the 1.366-mile track in the sport’s top series and had led 715 laps in 11 starts at this track. He is now the first driver to lock into the Round of 12 and leads the series with 11 top-five finishes this year.
"This has been one of my favorite tracks my whole career and I've been really, really fast here my whole career," Larson said of the South Carolina track that is known as "Too Tough to Tame." "... Adding this trophy to the collection is going to be amazing and just such a prestigious race. This is one of three or four crown jewels, and I feel like besides the 500, maybe the only one I haven't won yet.
Larson’s win is the 500th for the Hendrick Motorsports engine shop across all three national series (Cup, NASCAR Xfinity Series and the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series). During his time at Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson earned the engine program’s 400th win in a Xfinity start at Daytona International Speedway in 2018.
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"Just proud of the team, proud of (team owner) Rick Hendrick, (vice chairman) Jeff Gordon, (team president) Jeff Andrews, (vice president of competition) Chad Knaus and everybody at the Hendrick (Motorsports) engine shop," Larson said. "500 wins, that's incredible, so congratulations to each and every one of you at the shop for all your hard work."
William Byron earned a fourth-place finish in the playoff opener in his No. 24 Liberty University Chevy. He started the 367-lap event from the 23rd position and radioed early on that the car felt too free. Strong work by his pit crew helped Byron pick up some spots on pit road during the 115-lap green flag run. He finished the stage in 14th. The Charlotte, North Carolina, native started the second stage in the top 10 and quickly made his way into the top five. He would go on to finish stage two in fifth.
After restarting fifth in the final stage, Byron passed his teammate Larson for third on lap 260. He was then able to take second place following a cycle of pit stops approximately 45 laps into the stage. The five-time winner in 2023 lost second to Kevin Harvick on lap 300. As the caution came out on lap 311, Byron was heading towards pit road, but narrowly avoided the commitment line and stayed out. That quick thinking helped keep him in contention. The 25-year-old driver maintained a position in the top five over the last 55 laps but couldn’t move any closer than fourth. The result is Byron’s 10th top-five finish of the season. He enters next weekend’s race at Kansas as the points leader (2,075 points) and is plus-45 on the elimination line to advance to the Round of 12.
"Really proud of the effort," Byron said. "When we started the race off, we weren’t making any ground up. I was really free and once we got our car in a better balance spot, I felt good about it. I think this is a good steppingstone for Kansas (Speedway). It was good to get a solid finish in the first race of the playoffs.
"I want to wish Kyle (Larson) and the whole No. 5 team a congratulations. They deserve it. They’re really good here. It was win No. 500 for the Hendrick Motorsports engine shop, so it’s a huge deal."
Chase Elliott finished eighth to score his 11th top-10 finish of the season. The driver of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 started the race from 13th. Approximately midway through the opening stage, Elliott got into the top 10 and continued to move forward as the race stayed green. He finished the stage in seventh. In the second stage, Elliott spent the bulk of the 115-lap segment in the top 10 with his pit crew cranking out fast stops to help him hold that track position. In the one-lap sprint to finish the stage, Elliott fell back to 11th.
After pitting for fresh tires during the stage break, Elliott restarted 26th. From there, he moved into the top 15 on lap 268 and continued to march back into the top 10. Following a pit stop under caution on lap 311, Elliott restarted 12th on lap 317 and quickly got back into the top 10. For much of the final 50 laps, he ran inside the top 10 to notch his eighth-place finish. The No. 9 team is 11th in the owner playoff standings and is plus-3 on the elimination line to advance to the Round of 12.
Alex Bowman lined up 24th in the No. 48 Ally Chevy for the Southern 500 at Darlington. While pitting from 12th in the opening stage on lap 68, Bowman had to stop on pit road twice with the second stop to address a loose lug nut. He finished the stage in 32nd. Throughout the second stage, crew chief Blake Harris was working to get his drive back on the lead lap. The team ran the opening run of the second stage long to try and catch a caution to stay on the lead lap. They eventually pitted but were able to take two wave arounds during the stage to get back on the lead lap before the end of stage two. Bowman finished the segment in 19th.
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Having pitted near the end of the previous stage, Bowman stayed out to restart 14th in the final stage. He entered the top 10 on lap 264 and continued to march forward, getting as high as sixth. Following a pit stop under caution, Bowman and the No. 48 crew maintained the sixth-place position for the lap 317 restart. On lap 320, Bowman was caught up in an incident with Daniel Suarez. The two were battling hard for a position in the top 10. Bowman was trying to hold the position and contact between the two occurred, which sent the driver of the No. 48’s car into the turn one wall. The damage proved to be too much for him to continue in the race. Bowman was scored in 33rd place.
Hendrick Motorsports’ 16 Cup Series wins at Darlington are the most all-time by a team. Jeff Gordon's seven wins account for nearly half of the total. Jimmie Johnson posted three wins at the 1.366-mile track, including the organization's 200th Cup Series win in 2012. Byron, Larson, Labonte, Mark Martin, Tim Richmond and Ricky Rudd each tallied one trip to victory lane for the team at the track "Too Tough to Tame." On 12 occasions, Hendrick Motorsports has won the Southern 500.
RELATED: See all of the team's wins at Darlington
Since the playoffs began in 2004, Hendrick Motorsports has posted a series-best 56 wins in the postseason races. Johnson has the most with 29 victories. Among the current driver lineup, Elliott and Larson top the board with seven wins followed by Bowman with one.
The second race of the Round of 16 will take place on Sunday, Sept. 10, at Kansas Speedway. Coverage of that event will be at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network, NBC Sports App, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).