NASCAR Cup Series playoffs open with Kyle Larson winning Southern 500

AP photo by Matt Kelley / Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson does a burnout after winning the Southern 500 on Sunday night at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway. It was the opener of the 10-race playoffs to determine the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series champion from a field of 16 contenders.

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Kyle Larson had led plenty of laps around Darlington Raceway through the years, just not the last one.

He finally accomplished that Sunday night with his victory at the Southern 500.

Larson, the 2021 Cup Series champion, came into the crown jewel race and playoff opener having been in front for 715 career laps at the track "Too Tough To Tame" without taking the checkered flag.

"This is a track I really enjoy, suits my style," Larson said. "I just hadn't won yet. Was good to do it today."

Especially because it puts his Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet into the second round of the Cup Series playoffs no matter where he finishes at the two remaining first-round races at Kansas and Bristol the next two weeks. The field of title contenders will be trimmed from 16 to 12 drivers before the next round.

In his first career win at Darlington, Larson did better than lead the final lap, though. He was actually out front for the final 55.

"Adding this trophy to the collection is amazing," Larson said. "This is one of three or four crown jewels."

Larson didn't have the fastest car, just one that got out front at the right time while other contenders fell away.

Denny Hamlin led a race-high 177 of 367 laps and seemed headed for the win before he felt vibrations for what he told his crew was a loose wheel on his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and had to pit on consecutive laps.

"We controlled the race until we had some trouble," said Hamlin, who won the first two stages. "That's just part of it."

Tyler Reddick led 90 laps, yet lost the lead to Larson coming off pit road. Kevin Harvick, seeking the first victory of his final season, challenged for the lead with less than 60 laps remaining, but he was penalized when he could not avoid entering the pits moments after they were closed by NASCAR after a caution came out. Harvick, who said he didn't have time to get back on the track before the commitment line, was unable to recover from the penalty.

It was a successful run at the track for Larson after several close calls. He had three runner-up finishes and two third-place showings in his 11 previous Cup Series races at Darlington. In May, he was racing for the lead late when he was hit by Ross Chastain and wound up 20th.

"This has been one of my favorite tracks my whole career," Larson said of the 1.366-mile egg-shaped layout. "Been really, really fast here my whole career, just usually in the wall."

The victory was also the 299th overall for Hendrick Motorsports and the 500th motorsports win for the Hendrick engine program.

Larson won for the third time this season and won a postseason race for the eighth time in seven playoff appearances.

Cliff Daniels, Larson's crew chief, said he and his driver have dealt with lots of Darlington heartbreak through the years and were glad to end that.

"This track and this race has been circled on our calendar for a long time," Daniels said.

Playoff drivers took the first seven spots. Reddick was second, followed by Chris Buescher, William Byron, Chastain, Brad Keselowski and Bubba Wallace.

Harvick ended 19th and Hamlin 25th. The rest of the playoff field was Kyle Busch in 11th, Joey Logano in 12th, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 16th, Martin Truex Jr. in 18th, pole-sitter Christopher Bell in 23rd and Michael McDowell in 32nd.

The point standings have Bell as 12th on the playoff grid on the second-round playoff bubble. Those drivers on the outside of the next round after this week are Wallace, Harvick, Stenhouse and McDowell.

Byron, Larson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate and co-top seed with Truex, entered with a series-best five victories this year and was glad with the high finish.

"I think this is a good stepping stone for Kansas and good to get a solid first race in the playoffs," he said.

Ryan Preece, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver who endured a frightening, spinning crash after going airborne in the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway last week yet walked away largely unharmed, finished 28th at Darlington.

The 10-race postseason continues with its second date next Sunday at Kansas Speedway, where Wallace was the winner a year ago and Hamlin won in May.