Kyle Larson wins NASCAR Playoffs opener at Darlington

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Kyle Larson (2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) answers questions, August 29, 2023, during a news conference at Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix, Arizona.

Kyle Larson (2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) answers questions, August 29, 2023, during a news conference at Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix, Arizona.
Image: Mark Henle / USA TODAY NETWORK

Kyle Larson won a late pit stop Sunday night and made the first dent in the NASCAR Cup Series championship playoffs, winning the 74th annual Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

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After three career runner-up finishes at “The Track Too Tough to Tame,” the Hendrick Motorsports team put Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet up front on a pit stop on Lap 313.

After the night’s eighth caution on Lap 331 involved playoff participants Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell, Larson restarted with the lead and managed to win despite banging the track’s wall a number of times.

Larson, 31, held off Tyler Reddick by 0.447 seconds for his third victory of 2023 and 22nd of his career to advance to the Round of 12.

His first career Darlington victory gave Chevrolet its manufacturer-leading 29th win in NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway race.

Chris Buescher, May Darlington winner William Byron and Ross Chastain rounded out the top five.

Polesitter Bell, whose team swapped pit crews with teammate Ty Gibbs, topped the first 34 circuits, but on the first pit stop under green, the jack fell on the right side of Bell’s No. 20 to send it back to sixth place after service cycled around.

After Reddick assumed the point in the No. 45 Toyota, Hamlin eventually ran him down and took the lead. Hamlin’s No. 11 Camry won the 115-lap first stage as Bubba Wallace spun in his No. 23 Toyota at the segment’s end.

On Lap 180, the second caution flew when the lower lights in Turns 3 and 4 on the west end of the 1.336-mile, egg-shaped track went out, forcing a red-flag period for roughly 10 minutes.

During a one-lap dash to end Stage 2, Hamlin claimed his second straight stage win by beating Larson and two-time Southern 500 winner Erik Jones.

In the final stage of the 367-lap race, Hamlin — who led a race-high 177 laps — had to pit twice within a few laps due to what he thought was a loose wheel and lost a lap.

—Field Level Media

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