LAS VEGAS – For the second time in three years, Kyle Larson has won the opening race in the Round of 8 of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs to secure a berth in the Championship 4.
Larson had to hold off a late charge by Christopher Bell to score the win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway by 0.08 seconds. On the day, the driver of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 swept the stages and led a race-high 133 laps. Off the final turn, Larson did everything he could to keep Bell in front of him to earn his second Championship 4 appearance and his fourth win of the 2023 Cup Series season.
PHOTOS: See the scenes from victory lane for Larson, No. 5 team
"I could see him coming in my mirror, for sure," Larson said of Bell's final laps charge. "(I) Was hoping those lappers were going to give me the bottom. The 38 (Todd Gilliland) peeled off to the bottom. I knew I couldn't follow him. I just didn't want to go all the way to the top and leave the middle open."
The day was an eventful one for Larson. He started second and took the lead on lap three, leading most of the opening stage for his sixth stage win of the season. Just past the midway point of the race, he brushed the wall off of turn two on lap 142 and made a tremendous save.
"I was getting really loose at that point," Larson said. "It's so bumpy in (turns) one and two that when you are loose, it makes it even worse going across those bumps. I got a little out of shape, had a moment and thought I had it saved. Usually when you do that, it just aggravates things. It stepped out really quick. Honestly, I was thinking I was just going to spin, then hit the inside wall. About that time, I clipped the outside wall and got lucky. Was just thinking that I was going to do it again because now my right rear tire was scorched. I was so loose for the next however many laps before the caution came out. Thankfully, that caution came out, kind of got to take a deep breath and try to forget about that moment as quick as possible and get refocused on the race ahead."
While he fell back to fifth, a caution with 20 laps to go in the stage saw some teams take two tires and others take four. Crew chief Cliff Daniels called for four tires and after restarting sixth with 16 laps in the stage, Larson drove up to the front for his seventh stage win of the season.
In the final stage, the 31-year-old driver ran the first half of the closing segment in third. However, a clutch pit stop under yellow of 9.54 seconds on lap 212 gave Larson and the No. 5 team the lead off pit road. Larson took it from there, leading 53 of the final 54 laps en route to the victory. This win is his second at Las Vegas, the 17th for Larson in the No. 5 Chevy and the 23rd of his Cup Series career. Larson leads the series in laps led (1,031) and top-five finishes (14).
"I think I would summarize it as an all-around good team day," Daniels said. "Contrary to some of the races we’ve had this year, I think today was about the things that actually worked out and went our way versus things that didn’t go our way.
"Our pit crew did an amazing job and got us out with the lead. Then, Kyle (Larson) did a great job at the end of the race managing tires. Leading in the Next Gen car is really tough. ... I thought Kyle did a great job managing that. All in all, a really solid all-around team day."
Most importantly, the victory puts Larson and the No. 5 team into the Championship 4. And now, they have an extra head start on preparing for title race at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, Nov. 5. The organization has had a driver reach the championship round in the last four seasons (Chase Elliott in 2020, 2021 and 2022 and Larson in 2021 and 2023).
"I knew when they got through the (Charlotte Motor Speedway) ROVAL this round was going to be extremely good for them," team vice chairman Jeff Gordon said. "They run good really at all three of these tracks, but especially this one and Homestead (Miami Speedway)."
Larson’s victory marks the third straight round that Hendrick Motorsports has won the opening race of the three-race segment. Larson won at Darlington Raceway to start the postseason and William Byron scored the triumph at Texas Motor Speedway to kickoff the Round of 12.
RELATED: See all of Larson's wins at Hendrick Motorsports
Byron took home a seventh-place finish in the No. 24 Relay Payments Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. The result was his series-best 19th top-10 finish of the season. Byron started the race third but was fighting a loose race car for much of stage one. In the opening 80-lap stage, he finished 10th. Prior to the green flag for stage two, crew chief Rudy Fugle and the team went to work on improving the car for Byron. The next stretch saw the car get better as the run progressed. The No. 24 Chevy was among those that took two tires late in the stage when the caution came out with 20 to go. Byron restarted second but slipped back to sixth at the completion of stage two.
In the final stage, the 25-year-old driver restarted seventh and quickly jumped back into the top five. However, his car was too free on the initial run of the stage and he dropped a few spots. After restarting sixth with 45 laps to go, Byron battled hard to get back into the top five but slipped outside of that spot in the closing laps. With two races left in the Round of 8, Byron holds a nine-point advantage to the cutline and is second in the standings. The Charlotte, North Carolina, native holds a series-best 4.83 average finish of 1.5-mile tracks in 2023.
"Our No. 24 Relay Payments Chevrolet was solid," Byron said. "The points are a lot tighter than we would want them to be, so we just have to have two good weeks. Hopefully, go to Homestead (Miami Speedway) and have a little bit better long-run speed. Overall, happy with our execution. We kind of made the most out of what we had. I think at the beginning of the race, we were hovering around sixth to eighth and we were able to finish there. Wish we could have gotten a little more stage points but we’ll take it."
RELATED: Byron says 'definitely us against ourselves' to reach Championship 4
Elliott had to start from the back after a practice incident saw the No. 9 LLumar Chevy team bring out the backup car. The primary had shown promising speed in practice and the team worked hard to get the backup ready to race. Elliott started the race in 35th and it was tough to pass in traffic. Thanks to timely work on pit road, the team was able to steadily pick up track position throughout the race and got up to 16th with 45 laps to go. Following the lap 223 restart, Elliott was posted for a restart violation and had to serve a pass-thru penalty. He finished the race in 32nd. The No. 9 team is still in the fight for the owner championship and is 61 points below the cutline following the Las Vegas race.
Alex Bowman entered Sunday’s race with two straight top-three finishes at Las Vegas. Starting from 14th in the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, he showed good speed early on as he raced into the top 10 in the opening 15 laps. Bowman reported he was tight in traffic and the team went to work on improving his ride quality. A caution late in the stage shook up the strategy a bit and saw Bowman go from inside the top 10 to 15th at the end of stage one. In the second stage, Bowman raced back into the top 10 just passed the midpoint of the segment. While running in the ninth position on lap 145, his car got into the wall off of turn four and took on significant damage. Bowman’s day ended with a 35th-place result.
"All of a sudden, it swung a little loose," Bowman said of his car just prior to the incident. "When I entered the corner, I didn’t even have a chance to save it. I hate that for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and the whole No. 48 Ally team. We had a really fast Chevy Camaro and our teammates have been really fast as well."
Hendrick Motorsports has won nine times at Las Vegas. Jimmie Johnson leads the team with four wins, followed by Larson’s two. Bowman, Byron and Gordon have each posted one victory at the 1.5-mile track. Byron and Larson's wins at Las Vegas in 2023 comprised the first season sweep for the organization at this track.
Larson’s two stage wins now give the organization 10 of the last 16 stage victories at the Nevada venue. In addition, the Rick Hendrick-owned team now has had at least one driver finish in the top five in each of the past 11 races this season.
RELATED: See every Hendrick Motorsports win at Las Vegas
The Round of 8 continues at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, Oct. 22, at 2:30 p.m. ET. Coverage of this race will be on NBC, NBC Sports App, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).