BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kyle Larson finished second in Saturday night’s NASCAR Cup Series at Bristol Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 5 Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was already locked into the Round of 12 with his victory to open the playoffs at Darlington Raceway. William Byron had his spot in the Round of 12 sown up following stage two. With a seventh-place finish by Chase Elliott, the No. 9 team advanced in the owner playoffs.
After starting 36th in the field, Larson worked his way through the field in the opening 125-lap stage. The 31-year-old driver got up to eighth at the end of stage one. Staying out during the stage break as he pitted a little after the midway point of the opening stage, Larson restarted the second segment in third and took the lead on lap 179. He held the point position for 20 laps before ultimately finishing the stage in third. In the final stage, Larson restarted third and spent the last 138 laps in second, trying to chase down eventual race winner Denny Hamlin for the lead.
"I feel like we had the second-best car and we finished second with it," Larson said. "We just didn’t have the pace that Denny (Hamlin) had. He was really, really fast and got through traffic really well. I thought maybe his balance was fading when we got to traffic, but as soon as he got clear of them, he took back off. Just didn’t quite have the balance that I needed to really charge through the corners and be aggressive on the throttle and exit. We made it better on that final run, but just not quite enough."
The 2021 Cup Series champion’s runner-up finisher is his series-best 13th top-five finish of the season. This was also his third second-place finish at Bristol and his third straight top-five finish at the 0.533-mile track. In the playoffs, Larson notched a 2.33 average finish with three top-four finishes: A win at Darlington, a fourth-place result at Kansas Speedway and Saturday’s second-place result at Bristol. He starts the Round of 12 in fourth and plus-12 to the elimination line.
RELATED: How the NASCAR playoff format works
Elliott started the 500-lap race in seventh but fell back to 16th as he got stuck on the outside lane. The 27-year-old driver of the No. 9 NAPA Gold Filters Chevy recovered during the stage and was 12th after the first 125 laps. Staying out during the stage break, Elliott restarted fifth. While he lost some spots late in the run on older tires, the Dawsonville, Georgia, native finished the second stage in 10th. After pitting before the final stage, Elliott restarted 12th. Following a pit stop under yellow on lap 365, the No. 9 pit crew’s 10.04 second stop gained their driver two spots to restart ninth on lap 370. On the ensuing restart (which ended up being the final one of the day), Elliott gained two spots and went on to earn a seventh-place finish. He now has 13 top-10 results in 2023.
The 2020 Cup Series champion now has five top-seven finishes in his last six Bristol night races. Elliott is hitting his stride as the season has hit its final quarter. He now has four straight top-10 finishes with an average finish of 6.25 during that stretch. The No. 9 team enters the Round of 12 of the owner playoffs in 12th and minus-13 to the elimination line.
Byron started third in the No. 24 Relay Payments Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. In the opening stage, he battled a tight condition around the three-quarters mark of the run. The 25-year-old driver finished fourth in stage one and stayed out during the stage break. That strategy decision put Byron second for the start of stage two, but he lost spots to drivers with fresher tires late in the run. He took eighth in the second segment and as a result, clinched his spot in the Round of 12. In the final stage, the Charlotte, North Carolina, native spent much of the 250-lap segment in the back of the top 10 and finished ninth. He now is tied for the series-lead in top-10 results (15) and has four top-10s in his last five Bristol starts. Entering the Round of 12, Byron is first in the standings and plus-25 to the elimination line.
"We have a good points position," Byron said of where the team is entering the next round. "We need to try to keep getting bonus points, but we just need to keep trying to run better. Two of the three weeks (in the Round of 16) were really good, and even Kansas (Speedway) was really good. Just need to do a little bit better job executing and we should be in good shape."
Alex Bowman took the grid from the 13th position in the No. 48 Ally Chevy. In the opening stage, he communicated to the team that he was tight in the center and building free during the run. A two-tire strategy call from crew chief Blake Harris on lap 71 put Bowman in the top 10 for the second half of the first stage. He went on to finish the stage in 16th. The 30-year-old driver stayed out during the stage break to restart eighth and spent much of the next 109 laps in the top 10, but slipped outside of earning a stage point late, finishing 11th. In the first half of the final stage, Bowman drove up to eighth before a caution came out on lap 363. A tough pit stop put him in 14th and he went on to finish 13th.
For the seventh straight race, Hendrick Motorsports had a driver finish in the top five. Those top fives came at Michigan International Speedway (Larson), the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course (Elliott and Bowman), Watkins Glen International (Byron), Daytona International Speedway (Elliott), Darlington (Larson and Byron), Kansas (Larson) and Bristol (Larson).
The start time of Saturday night’s race was moved up to 6:30 p.m. ET. Weather played a role early on with the green flag not dropping until a little after 7 p.m. ET and a red flag for rain coming out at lap 138.
The next race on the Cup Series schedule is the Round of 12 opener at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, Sept. 24, at 3:30 p.m. ET. Coverage of this race will be on USA Network, NBC Sports App, PRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).