Hendrick Motorsports dominated for the second-straight week, this time with Kyle Larson who, in just his fourth start with the organization, led 103 laps and took the checkered flag first for the first time since he was reinstated by NASCAR to compete after being suspended from the sport last year.
In 2020, Larson was suspended indefinitely after using a racial slur on an iRacing stream, but was picked up by Hendrick Motorsports for the 2021 season after his suspension ended following many hours of sensitivity training and learning.
“It feels good,” Larson said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again.
Larson last won at Dover in 2019 and has finished second at Las Vegas twice before, but had never won on a 1.5-mile track in NASCAR’s premier division until today despite having dominant performances at that category of tracks.
“I didn’t know kind of what the learning curve would be going into the new race team, being around new people, all of that,” Larson added. “But with the resources that they have and all the great people that they have in that building, that in itself gives you a lot of confidence.”
Brad Keselowski, who finished second, was Larson’s closest competitor for much of the day. He won stage 1 and finished second to Larson in stage 2, but was unable to catch Larson on long green flag runs.
“I wanted to win,” Keselowski said. “I told [Larson] I wanted to win the damn race. He could run as fast as we could down the straightaways and a little bit faster in some corners.
All four races in the 2021 season do far have produced four different winners from all three manufacturers across three different organizations. None of the winning drivers have more than 10 career wins in the Cup Series.
The race had a whopping 27 lead changes between 12 drivers and was run under caution six times for a total of 30 laps.
NASCAR’s premier division will head to Phoenix Raceway in Arizona for their next race, which will be on Sunday, March 14 at 3:30 p.m. ET.
Stage 1 – 80 laps
Kevin Harvick led the pack of 40 cars to the green flag, but in turn 3, Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson took Harvick three-wide for the lead. Byron took the top spot and Larson followed through to second. Just laps later, a third Hendrick Chevrolet driven by Chase Elliott sliced his way from his eighth starting spot to third, and then passed Larson for second, giving Hendrick Motorsports the top-three positions in the early laps of the race. Elliott took the lead from Byron on lap 20. Six laps later, NASCAR’s competition came out.
Drivers elected to come down pit road to get tires and fuel. Kyle Larson got the lead off pit road while Elliott got blocked in his pit stall and fell to sixth.
Larson led the restart, but Denny Hamlin used the bottom in turns 1 and 2 to take the lead. Elliott Quickly fought his way from sixth to third as new drivers began to make their way toward the front. Ryan Blaney started 26th and now had cracked the top five. Matt DiBenedetto, who finished second in both Las Vegas races in 2020, started 30th and was now 10th.
On lap 44, Larson powered around Hamlin for the lead, but a caution for debris followed shortly after.
Larson led the restart, but ran multiple laps side-by-side with Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski for the lead. Logano prevailed with a push from Elliott, who was charging hard on new tires. Elliott took the lead with 19 laps to go in the stage. Keselowski took over second, and Blaney followed through to third, now putting all three Team Penske Fords directly behind Elliott’s Chevrolet.
Keselowski and Elliott began to run side-by-side for the lead, constantly exchanging the top spot and allowing Blaney in third to close in on the two leaders. Keselowski
The top-10 finishers in stage 1 were Keselowski, Elliott, Blaney, Hamlin, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell, Byron, DiBenedetto, Logano and Martin Truex, Jr.
Stage 2 – 80 laps
Under the stage-end yellow, Hamlin took the lead with Keselowski and Alex Bowman behind him. Elliott’s crew elected to make an extended pit stop to repair damage on the right-side skirts, dropping him to 29th in the running order.
Hamlin led the field to the first green flag of stage 2 on lap 88, but it didn’t take long for Keselowski to clear Hamlin for the lead. Blaney followed Keselowski past Hamlin for second and the Penske-affiliated no. 21 of DiBenedetto passed Hamlin for third. Hamlin also lost positions to Larson and Byron, putting him sixth.
On the stage’s 25th lap, Larson and Byron pushed past Blaney, putting the Hendrick duo second and third, respectively. A lap later, Larson powered around Keselowski for the lead.
Just past the halfway-point of the stage, green-flag pit stops began when Bowman, Logano and others decided to pit. Tyler Reddick made his name known when he decided to stay out of the pits for an extended period of time after many of the leaders pitted, taking the lead and hoping for a caution so he could trap many of the front-runners a lap down. Eventually, Reddick pitted, handing the lead to Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell. With 15 to go in the stage, McDowell pitted, allowing Larson to inherit the lead once again.
No one could touch Larson, who had a five-second lead over Keselowski when he cycled back to the lead, allowing him to win his first stage of the season.
In stage 2, the top-10 finishers were Larson, Keselowski, Hamlin, Byron, Blaney, Bowman, Bell, Truex, Kyle Busch and Elliott.
Race to the finish – 107 laps
Once again, the stage-end caution drew the teams to pit road for service. Larson came out in front of Hamlin and Bowman. Elliott came out ninth, the highest he had run since pitting to repair damage to his car.
Larson easily cleared Hamlin on the restart to hold the lead. Seven laps into the stage, Elliott got loose off of turn two and spun around. He hit Kurt Busch’s car, but neither car suffered major damage and they were both able to race on after making minor repairs on pit road. The incident brought out the caution.
Larson led the field back to the green flag, but Hamlin, with a massive push from Truex and Keselowski, took the lead in turn 3.n Again, it was only a short run until another caution came out after Aric Almirola had his left-front tire go flat, sending his no. 10 Ford into the turn 1 wall.
Under the caution, strategies were very split. Larson in third was the first car to pit and lined up 16th for the restart
Hamlin led the restart but was overtaken by Truex shortly after. Truex led for a handful of laps, buty Hamlin took the lead back as Larson moved into second on his new tires. On lap 206, Kyle Larson took the lead.
Larson began to pull away again as the running order continued to get shuffled around. Keselowski took second from Hamlin, Blaney took fourth from Truex and Kyle Busch took sixth over Byron.
With 50 laps to go, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. came down pit road under green for a pit stop, presumably his last of the day. Over the next 10 laps, all other competitors made their green flag stops. Daniel Suarez and Cole Custer stayed out of the pits, trying to catch a caution to keep many of the fastest cars a lap down. The gamble didn’t work for them and they both had to pit, handing the lead back to Larson.
With 16 laps to go, Alex Bowman had a flat tire, but was able to limp to pit road without a caution coming out. Luckily for Larson, no cautions came out, allowing him to cruise to his first win of 2021 and his first win since before he was indefinitely suspended by NASCAR last spring.
Featured photo credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images