Kyle Larson wins opening playoff race

Kyle Larson celebrates in Victory Lane after winning Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener at Darlington. (Matt Kelley / AP Photo)

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Kyle Larson led the final 55 laps to start his latest Cup Series playoff run with his first career win at the Southern 500 on Sunday night.

The 2021 Cup Series champion automatically advances into the round of 12 with the win at Darlington Raceway regardless of how he does in races at Kansas and Bristol the next two weeks.

“What a great way to start the playoffs,” he said.

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-best 177 of 367 laps and looked headed for the win before he felt vibrations for what he told his crew was a loose wheel and had to pit on consecutive laps.

“We controlled the race until we had some trouble,” Hamlin said. “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 Reddick for the lead with less than 60 laps remaining but was penalized when he could not avoid entering the pits moments after they were closed by NASCAR after a caution came out.

Harvick said he didn’t have time to get back on the track before the commitment line and couldn’t recover.

It was a successful run at the track “Too Tough To Tame” for Larson after several close calls. He has had three seconds and two thirds in his 11 previous Cup Series races at Darlington. In May, Larson 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. “Been really, really fast here my whole career, just usually in the wall.”

“Adding this trophy to the collection is amazing,” Larson continued. “This is one of three or four crown jewels.”

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.

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

“I think this is a good steppingstone for Kansas and good to get a solid first race in the playoffs,” he said.

The second of the opening-round three races in the Cup Series playoffs takes place at Kansas Speedway on Sept. 10. Wallace took this event a year ago, while Hamlin won there in May.