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October 15, 2023

Kyle Larson wins at Las Vegas, clinches Championship 4 berth

LAS VEGAS – Kyle Larson earned this trophy the old-fashioned way. The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driver led the most laps and swept both stage wins but still had to hold off a hard-charging, equally motivated Christopher Bell at the start/finish line to claim a dramatic victory in Sunday’s South Point 400 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Round of 8 opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The 31-year-old Larson blocked the final charge by fellow playoff driver Bell’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as the two cars approached the checkered flag. Larson ultimately positioned his Chevy in front to claim a 0.082-second win and secure the first of four available positions in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 race at Phoenix in three weeks.

RELATED: Race results | At-track photos

It was a compelling afternoon ushering in this final three-race, eight-driver round of playoff competition to set up the four-driver title chase, with seven race leaders and 20 lead changes. Larson held off the field on a restart with 45 laps to go and never relinquished it despite quality challenges from Bell to close out the race and earlier, Roush Fenway Keselowski owner-driver Brad Keselowski, who led 38 laps himself.

Larson led seven times and accumulated the most laps led — 133 of 267 — on the afternoon to top the 1,000 laps led mark on the season. His 1,031 total laps out front in 2023 are the most in the series.

Not only did he have to hold off Bell, who made up half a second in the closing five laps to get to Larson’s bumper, but the 2021 series champ Larson survived a close call mid-race, his Chevy getting loose and out of control. But the former dirt race champion dramatically corrected and calmly carried on.

WATCH: Larson discusses Vegas win | Bell: ‘That was my moment to make the final four’

“Thankfully, Christopher [Bell] always races extremely clean. It could have gotten crazier than it did coming to the start-finish line, so thank you to him for racing with respect there,” Larson said. “What a job done by my team. Just a great race car.

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“I almost gave it away there in turns 1 and 2. Got sideways and hit the wall and had to fight back from there. I was happy to pull away as much as we did and was hoping that would be enough to maintain, which it was. But I didn’t think they’d be able to get as close as they did at the end. So nerve-wracking.

“This is really cool to get to race for the championship in a few weeks, and really glad I don’t have to stress these next two races,” Larson continued.

Despite the impressive afternoon, Bell, who started from the pole position and led 61 laps, now finds himself ranked fifth, two points below the four-driver elimination line heading into next week’s playoff race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I don’t know what else I could have done,” Bell said. “I feel like that was my moment, that was my moment to make the Final Four and didn’t quite capture it. Coming to the checkers there, I knew he was going to be blocking, so I’m like, I’ll try to go high, and he went high. I don’t even know if I had a run to get by him coming to the line. Just wasn’t enough, but a great day. Great day for sure to get those stage points and a second-place finish out of it. Puts us behind by two [points], so we’re not out of it by any means, but would have been nice to lock in.”

The non-playoff cars of Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch, RFK’s Keselowski and Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain rounded out the top five behind Larson and Bell.

SHOP: Winner’s gear

Seven of the remaining eight playoff-eligible drivers finished inside the top 10. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron, 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick and JGR’s Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin finished sixth through 10th, respectively. Blaney was initially disqualified in post-race inspection due to the left-front damper not meeting the overall specified length (Section However, the penalty was rescinded on Monday.

The race shook up the postseason picture. Beyond Larson’s automatic bid, Byron still holds the championship lead in what is now more tightly bunched standings. The No. 24 is nine points up on Truex Jr. and Hamlin, who both are two points above the elimination line.

Reddick (-16), Blaney (-17) and Buescher (-23) round out the playoff driver’s positioning. Buescher’s 11th-place finish represented a decent rally for his car, which ran 15th-20th place for much of the day.

Hendrick Motorsports executive — and NASCAR Hall of Famer driver Jeff Gordon — smiled when asked about Larson’s day.

WATCH: Gordon on if Larson is a better driver than he was: ‘Uh, yes!’

“I don’t know where to begin,” Gordon said. “It certainly looked like they were the class or the field at one point, then Bell did, then Keselowski did. Great race, really.”

Asked if Larson was potentially as “good” as the 93-race winner Gordon had been when competing, the former four-time series champion said, “You take a guy like Kyle and his capabilities and his talent, and he’s impressed me with his work ethic too. I wasn’t sure how he approached the Cup Series and [crew chief] Cliff [Daniels] and all the data that Cliff gives him in the meetings they have. .. it’s a lot of information you have to absorb.

“But he’s stepped up to the plate and done absolutely everything the organization has asked of him and then some. It’s been a great relationship, and this year has been all about getting the car and team to align.

“Seems like in the playoffs, they’ve been bringing fast race cars and stepping up to the plate.”

The next race of this final three-race playoff round to set the championship field is next Sunday’s 4EVER 400 Presented by Mobil 1 at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App). Larson is the defending race winner.

Note: Post-race inspection in the Cup Series garage concluded with confirmation of Larson as the race winner.