DARLINGTON, S.C. — Kyle Larson had nothing to lose.
With a 47-point cushion over the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs’ Round of 16 elimination line heading into Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Larson tried to send it in the final corner in an effort to take the race victory away from Denny Hamlin.
Carrying more speed than normal entering the turn, Larson purposely hit the wall, riding it through Turns 3 and 4 in an effort to reach Hamlin’s back bumper. In what he described as a video-game style move that was reminiscent of Carl Edwards’ attempt for the win against Jimmie Johnson in 2008 at Kansas Speedway, Larson fell just short of passing Hamlin while using up the right side of his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“Decided I would try to wall-ride and see what would happen,” Larson said. “He (Hamlin) started running a little bit safer line the last few laps and getting back to diamonding (the corner). I thought if I rode the wall, I could squeeze to his outside and who knows what would have happened after that down the frontstretch. I actually got to his bumper a little too early and he kind of protected the wall.”
“It was wild and I hope the fans enjoyed the desperation. Just came one spot short.”
For Larson, the risk was worth the potential reward. A race win would have added to his bonus points bucket. A complete botch wouldn’t have hurt much given the points he earned by winning Stage 2 and finishing second in Stage 1 to kick off the postseason at the 1.366-mile historic oval. A second place was where he was running regardless, so why not try?
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“Knowing how far above the cutline we were to start the race and finish in the top two in the stages and finishing second there at the end, I knew that I could go for broke a little bit more there the last handful of laps,” Larson said. “I was kind of hitting the wall every lap in (Turns) 3 and 4. I felt like if I got a flat and finished 25th, I was still going to be good in points. I would say I was a little bit more brave because of that.”
Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, wasn’t totally surprised with his last-lap decision behind the wheel.
“I don’t know that there’s really a better way to look at it than that,” Daniels told NASCAR.com. “He (Larson) knew how many laps were left in the race, so he knew that if he had a flat tire, he could probably ride it out to the end. I’m sure all that was going through his mind.”
Even playoff competitor Martin Truex Jr. took notice of the risky maneuver.
“I was asking him (Larson) if it was Nintendo or PlayStation,” Truex said with a laugh. “He definitely, the wall glue got him. He got stuck to the wall. … He got close. It was a valiant effort.”
Although the No. 5 incurred heavy right-side damage that will take some time to buff out, he still fared far better than his Hendrick Motorsports counterparts. After hitting the wall on Lap 16 and an engine issue before the green flag waved, Alex Bowman only managed a 26th-place finish. Chase Elliott smacked the wall on Lap 327 after contact with Christopher Bell, ending the night for the No. 9 with a finish of 31st. Finally, William Byron’s Lap 200 crash after a left-front inner valve stem was knocked out ended the No. 24 team’s night prematurely, finishing 34th.
“On my end, just made way too many mistakes,” Elliott said. “That’s what you deserve when you make that many mistakes. Onward.”
With Hamlin locked into the Round of 12 with his Darlington triumph, Larson now has an 80-point cushion on the elimination line. As teammates and other playoff drivers struggled at Darlington, including Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch and Michael McDowell, crew chief Daniels and the team will continue to keep the blinders on like they have throughout the 2021 season.
“Our mindset all year has been to focus on our race and that’s really it right now,” Daniels said. “Certainly, if things were to drastically change and we had to start worrying about points, then we would. But we’re very fortunate to be in this spot. I think the best thing we can do right now is stay in our lane, focus on our races and try to execute.”