NASCAR Barometer:  Kyle Larson Wins Darlington to Advance in Playoffs

NASCAR Barometer: Kyle Larson Wins Darlington to Advance in Playoffs

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kyle Larson made no mistakes Sunday night to win his first Southern 500 and clinch his spot in the next round of playoff eliminations. The night started with long stretches of green-flag running with Denny Hamlin on point and in position to dominate the 500 miles only for mistakes and bad fortune to start claiming championship contenders. Larson kept Hamlin within reach and was there to consolidate the top position as the night went on. Larson led 55 laps, compared to second-place Tyler Reddick's 90 and Hamlin's 177. Playoff drivers took the top seven finishing spots, and eight of the top 10 positions, with Larson securing his spot in the round of 12 after the race win. Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Michael McDowell all leave Darlington in the elimination positions with work to do in the final two races of the initial round of the playoffs. 

Kansas Speedway looms this coming week as a pivotal race in the round of 16. Denny Hamlin won there earlier this season, and he will be aiming to sweep season victories at the track after letting Sunday night's win slip through his fingers. Those playoff contenders that stumbled at Darlington need to immediately turn things around at Kansas, while those who got off to a good start will seek to keep that form intact. The playoffs continue with the second race of the round of 16 at Kansas Speedway and only Larson is assured of a

Kyle Larson made no mistakes Sunday night to win his first Southern 500 and clinch his spot in the next round of playoff eliminations. The night started with long stretches of green-flag running with Denny Hamlin on point and in position to dominate the 500 miles only for mistakes and bad fortune to start claiming championship contenders. Larson kept Hamlin within reach and was there to consolidate the top position as the night went on. Larson led 55 laps, compared to second-place Tyler Reddick's 90 and Hamlin's 177. Playoff drivers took the top seven finishing spots, and eight of the top 10 positions, with Larson securing his spot in the round of 12 after the race win. Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Michael McDowell all leave Darlington in the elimination positions with work to do in the final two races of the initial round of the playoffs. 

Kansas Speedway looms this coming week as a pivotal race in the round of 16. Denny Hamlin won there earlier this season, and he will be aiming to sweep season victories at the track after letting Sunday night's win slip through his fingers. Those playoff contenders that stumbled at Darlington need to immediately turn things around at Kansas, while those who got off to a good start will seek to keep that form intact. The playoffs continue with the second race of the round of 16 at Kansas Speedway and only Larson is assured of a spot among the final 12.

UPGRADE

Kyle Larson - Sunday night's race looked set to be a Toyota affair, but Larson's pace with his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was the one that got the job done. He kept his car among the top five throughout the race's long green-flag stretches, and cycled to the front as others fell by the wayside and the laps wore down. In the end, Larson had to hold off six other playoff contenders directly behind him, but the speed of the No. 5 machine was just too much for any of them to overcome, especially when its driver was making no mistakes. Larson advances to the next round of the playoffs with the victory, but he can enjoy two races in this round with comparatively less pressure. Larson won the fall race at Kansas from pole in 2021and has gone on to finish second, eighth, and second in the three races there since. 

Denny Hamlin - After winning Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Darlington, Hamlin looked to seal a perfect weekend by dominating the Southern 500, too. For the majority of the race it looked as though that was exactly what he was going to do. He leapt out to the lead from the drop of the green flag and went on to win both stages, collecting the playoff points that come along with them. Unfortunately, in the final stage he felt a vibration and had to duck to pit road unexpectedly to replace his tires. That extra stop under green-flag conditions left him tumbling down the order and out of contention for the win, which was then completely lost after a late-race crash. Things still look bright for the No. 11, though. The car's speed is undeniable and Hamlin is a four-time victor at Kansas, but he and the team must eliminate mistakes. 

Tyler Reddick - Reddick showed Sunday night why he may make a sneaky championship favorite. The No. 45 had speed throughout the long race at Darlington. He started inside the top five and picked up stage points in both segments of the race. He then ran second to the finish in an outstanding start to his playoff push. With one playoff race complete, Reddick moved into third in the standings with a 30-point buffer between himself and 13th in the standings. He has three top-10 finishes from eight Kansas tries and led more than 20 laps in each of the last three races there, which bodes well for his chances to repeat his Darlington performance this week, too. Reddick is making his case to be one of the favorites to advance well into the playoffs and potentially even have a chance at the final four.

William Byron - The Darlington race weekend didn't get off to the ideal start for Byron, who qualified a lowly 23rd. Things changed for him in the race, though. Like teammate Larson, Byron had more race speed than his qualifying result showed, and he drove forward through the field through the first green-flag runs. By the finish of the second stage, Byron worked his way all the way into the top five, and he stayed there the rest of the night. By the finish, Byron had moved to fourth and was within a shout of the lead should anything have happened to the cars ahead. It was a championship-like performance from the No. 24 squad, who always seem to be at their best once the playoff begin. With the effort, Byron keeps his place atop the points with two races remaining in the first round of eliminations. Fantasy players should expect the same at Kansas, too. Byron finished third there in May.

Ross Chastain - Chastain and team would have liked to have momentum on their side entering these playoff races, however that was not the case with just one top-10 finish since their win at Nashville in June. That lack of success didn't seem to affect Chastain in Sunday night's race, though. At first it looked like Chastain would continue that run of form through the weekend with a poor 27th-place qualifying effort. The team kept digging in the race and made the most of the situation. Despite missing stage points in both opening segments, Chastain and team made the right calls and avoided mistakes to climb to fifth for the finish. The top-five was the seventh of the season for Chastain and came at an ideal time. He now sits 10th in the playoff standings, 13 points ahead of Bubba Wallace in 13th. More of the same this week at Kansas will put Chastain in position to advance to the round of 12. 

DOWNGRADE

Kevin Harvick - The opening race of the playoffs was shaping up to be a good night for Harvick in his final championship quest. He raced among the top five from the start and started staking a claim for the lead late in the final stage. Unfortunately, a poorly timed caution caught the No. 4 off guard as he was heading to pit road, and instead of driving through and not stopping, the team opted to take the penalty and performed their pit work anyway. It was a no win situation for the team who would have lost track position either way they chose, but the scenario turned an otherwise promising night for Harvick in the championship into a mulligan that he'll have to overcome in the next two races. The good news is that Harvick has three prior Kansas wins, and he finished 11th there earlier this season.

Michael McDowell - McDowell's playoff push got off to a terrible start at Darlington. The championship contender was having a relatively clean night despite not being the most competitive of the 16 playoff contenders. Problems for other playoff drivers looked set to keep McDowell in contention to advance with two races remaining in the round, but a late crash knocked McDowell completely out of the race and makes advancing to the round of 12 an extremely difficult task. The No. 34 was an innocent bystander racing in the pack when cars collided ahead of him. In the melee, McDowell slammed into the back of Denny Hamlin at high speed, heavily damaging the front of his car and eliminating any hopes of a decent finish. It is going to be a tall ask for McDowell to advance to the next playoff round with a DNF in the the three-race round.

Christopher Bell - The opening round of the playoffs appeared promising for Bell, and things looked even brighter when he landed pole position for Sunday night's race. After racing in the top 10 and picking up stage points in the first segment the night unraveled on him, though. Bell bounced off the wall at one point, which caused the team to spend extra time fixing the damage on multiple stops thereafter. Bell failed to pick up stage points in the second segment after that contact, and then he was caught in another crash later in the final stage. The compounding incidents left Bell with a 23rd-place finish, which wasn't the worst of the playoff contenders. However, Bell enters the final two races of the opening round of the playoffs on the bubble in the standings. With just a single point separating him and Bubba Wallace, Bell has no room for error at Kansas.

Martin Truex Jr. - By all accounts, Sunday's opening playoff race at Darlington should have been a night Truex got his championship run off to an ideal start. That success wasn't in the script, though. Truex, despite being one of the fastest drivers at the track in recent races, was slightly off the pace from the start. Things got more difficult when a loose wheel meant an unscheduled trip to pit lane. The former champion spent the remainder of the night trying to get that lap back. Multiple cautions late in the race helped that cause, but the good fortune came too little and too late for Truex to salvage much. He finished 18th when all was said and done, which leaves him sixth in the playoff standings. Truex has a 25-point gap back to the elimination zone, but he and the team will have wanted a significantly more positive start to their championship effort.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Chris Buescher - Buescher and his RFK Racing team flexed their muscle once again Sunday night at Darlington. The No. 17 team started their playoffs the heels of three quick victories, and made a statement again at Darlington. Buescher qualified inside the top 10 for Sunday's race, and he added stage points in the opening segment, too. As other playoff drivers suffered trouble, Buescher kept his nose clean and took advantage to move into the top five to claim a third-place finish for his first playoff race result. That impressive night keeps Buescher in confident standing in the points with a 27-point gap to the cutoff zone, and advancing to the next round is now a step closer. Buescher has three top-10 finishes at Kansas and finished 17th there in the spring. A top-15 finish this coming week would be another step toward playoff advancement.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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