LAS VEGAS — As he crossed the Las Vegas Motor Speedway finish line to claim the South Point 400 trophy, Denny Hamlin screamed into his team radio, “Viva Las Vegas.” And indeed, it was that kind of night for the perennial championship contender, who led a race-best 137 of the 267 laps to earn his first Las Vegas victory in 20 starts and take an automatic bid into the next round of the NASCAR Playoffs.
The 40-year-old Virginian edged reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott by 0.442 seconds. Elliott cut into Hamlin’s lead on every one of the closing 10 laps, taking full advantage of traffic, but was ultimately unable to catch Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Hamlin’s JGR teammates, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., finished third and fourth, respectively, with Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney rounding out the top five – all playoff drivers.
Tyler Reddick, who just missed advancing to this three-race Round of 12 by a mere two points last week, finished sixth after running among the top three for much of the late-race laps.
Penske’s Brad Keselowski, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick and regular-season champion Kyle Larson rounded out the top 10. Keselowski, Harvick and Larson are also eligible for the championship.
Hamlin led seven different times, won Stage 2 and took the lead for good with 39 laps remaining — facing that challenge from Elliott in the waning laps of what was a relatively clean race with only one yellow flag outside of the competition caution and two stage breaks.
The only other caution for an on-track incident came out for a single-car accident involving driver Joey Gase, whose No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet lost a tire and made heavy impact with the wall. He was examined in the infield care center but transported to an area hospital for a precautionary exam.
“It feels so good to win in Vegas, last couple times I’ve been so close but just didn’t have the right breaks, but they got the car great and great to hold those guys off,” said Hamlin, who earned his 46th career victory and becomes the first driver to officially earn a shot into the Round of 8. “I’m so happy to not have to worry about the next two weeks, but I am a professional and I will work just as hard each and every week to win.”
Obviously disappointed not to win, Elliott was still enthusiastic about his runner-up finish — his 12th top five of the season — rallying from a pit-stop strategy that put him a lap down at one point.
“We were really close, just not quite close enough,” Elliott said. “Denny did a really good job controlling the gap to me and he was having a hard time (lapping) with the 21 (Matt DiBenedetto).
“Super close. Really proud of our NAPA team and I feel like we’ve been performing at a really nice level the last three or four weeks, just haven’t had great results to show for it.”
Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Larson, certainly looked like the driver to beat early on. He led 95 laps and won his series-best 15th stage in the opening portion of the night, but a different pit strategy put him a lap down mid-race and he never fully recovered to challenge for the lead again.
While Hamlin earned the automatic bid into the next round of the playoffs, Larson still leads the championship standings — 22 points over Kyle Busch.
With his seventh-place finish, Keselowski moved into the eighth position in the standings, with races at Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval remaining to determine which eight drivers move on in the championship battle.
Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron, who suffered a tire problem late in the race, finished 18th and is now four points below the elimination line. Even with his top 10, Harvick remains ninth in the standings — still looking for his first victory of the season.
Hendrick driver Alex Bowman finished 22nd and is 13 points behind Keselowski. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell finished 25th, two laps down Sunday night after fighting through several setbacks. He is 25 points out of the transfer position.
The second race in this playoff round is the YellaWood 500, next Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sport App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Keselowski won at Talladega this April. Hamlin is the defending playoff race winner there.
NOTE: The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota passed NASCAR’s post-race inspection, thus confirming Denny Hamlin’s victory. The No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford of Kevin Harvick had two lug nuts not safe and secure, which means crew chief Rodney Childers will be fined $20,000 and suspended from the next race. These cars all had one lug nut not safe and secure — the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (driver Kyle Larson), the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (driver Kyle Busch), the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet (driver Ross Chastain) and the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet (driver Daniel Suarez) — and their respective crew chiefs will be fined $10,000 each.