Kyle Larson is on to the Round of 12.
The driver of the No. 5 car cemented that reality Sunday — triumphing on a caution-cluttered, arduous evening at Darlington Raceway in the 2023 rendition of the Southern 500.
This was Larson’s first career win in a playoff-opening race. It was his third win in 2023 and his most complete day since a dominant showing at the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Larson ultimately persevered through eight cautions, a light power outage and a race that saw 13 lead changes and 13 different leaders. His ascension through the field started in Stage 1 and virtually never stopped.
“From 18th to third in the first stage, I didn’t think that was possible,” Larson told the NBC broadcast after the race, a big smile on his face. “But our racecar was really good when the sun was out. Just had to work on it. I messed up once, and it got hung in neutral, and I slid and hit the wall and I think bit the toe link a little bit. So I was struggling from there.
“But we kept our heads in the game. That was really important. This race is all about keeping your head in it. I’ve been pretty hard on myself the past couple months. But having a leader like Cliff (Daniels), it’s good for my mind. Proud of the team.”
Down the stretch, Larson fended off Tyler Reddick, who finished second and led 77 laps on the day.
Chris Buescher, who has done pretty much everything to establish himself as a championship contender, finished third. William Byron finished fourth, and Ross Chastain finished fifth.
Chase Elliott notched the best finish for a non-playoff driver. He ran eighth.
For as complete of a day as it was for Larson, several drivers had flashes of greatness underminded by pit road mistakes and just plain bad luck. Here’s a look at the performances of six playoff drivers who had memorable races at Darlington.
Calling Hamlin’s run through Stage 2 at Darlington anything short of dominant would be an understatement. The bad news? A single mistake can mean devastation at the Southern 500. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota led virtually all evening (177 laps) before a blunder on pit road (loose wheel) in Stage 3. That put him a lap down with just under 100 laps to go — praying for a caution that didn’t come until it was too late.
To turn his Stage 3 from bad to worse, he was also involved in a multi-car pile-up that damaged his car and pushed him down in the field further. Hamlin finished 25th.
It’s true that his two stage wins delivered him 20 points and that he already had a decent Playoff Point cushion coming into Darlington — so Sunday wasn’t disastrous. But it could’ve been great.
Talk about an impossible situation. With about 50 laps to go in the race, Kevin Harvick was running P2 and had committed to pit road — only for Tyler Reddick to slow down and knock into Ryan Newman, who then spun out and prompted a caution before Harvick crossed the pit lane line. That resulted in a penalty — entering pit road when it was closed — and forced the No. 4 car going a lap down.
Because he’s Harvick, he still salvaged a reasonable finish. A Daniel Suarez-Alex Bowman wreck prompted a caution and got Harvick back on the lead lap. But it wasn’t enough to get him into Victory Lane for the fourth and final time of his illustrious Cup career. He finished P19.
The driver who started P1 had a rough day. He led for roughly the first 30 laps before a slow pit stop allowed Tyler Reddick and Denny Hamlin to pass him.
He then battled back — only to knock into the wall hard on Lap 113. He went down a lap after that and couldn’t quite battle back. He finished P23.
Martin Truex Jr.
The bad luck from the 2022 Southern 500 continued in 2023. Truex was running OK before having a blunder on pit road — a loose wheel — that forced the 19 car to file down pit road again and put the team a lap down.
He eventually got back on the lead lap after taking the wave-around after a Stage 2 caution, but he couldn’t quite launch himself into winning contention. He turned in a P18 finish.
The two-time Cup champion had to drop to the rear of the field before the race due to unapproved adjustments. But he rose up the field quickly and was solid throughout. He finished 11th.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Talk about an up-and-down day for this year’s Daytona 500 champion. An early speeding on pit road penalty plummeted him a lap down. And then, more than 100 laps later, he gets the free pass after a Stage 2 caution and subsequently ends Stage 2 in the Top 10.
And then … he took a long pit stop between Stage 2 and Stage 3, which dashed his contending chances. He finished 16th.
Southern 500 at Darlington unofficial results
|Pos.||Car||Driver||Time behind||Best speed||Last pit|
|1||5||Kyle Larson (P)||—||166.051||10.11|
|2||45||Tyler Reddick (P)||0.447||168.175||10.91|
|3||17||Chris Buescher (P)||0.898||165.615||9.91|
|4||24||William Byron (P)||0.93||163.997||10.644|
|5||1||Ross Chastain (P)||3.16||162.948||10.377|
|6||6||Brad Keselowski (P)||6.517||165.092||10.076|
|7||23||Bubba Wallace (P)||7.586||164.435||10.477|
|8||9||Chase Elliott (P)||7.977||163.724||11.144|
|9||12||Ryan Blaney (P)||8.224||166.377||10.877|
|11||8||Kyle Busch (P)||8.887||163.164||16.449|
|12||22||Joey Logano (P)||8.969||164.281||10.61|
|16||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (P)||12.742||161.95||11.277|
|18||19||Martin Truex Jr. (P)||13.444||163.196||11.311|
|19||4||Kevin Harvick (P)||13.558||163.936||10.243|
|21||54||Ty Gibbs #||14.99||162.598||10.544|
|23||20||Christopher Bell (P)||-1||168.071||71.878|
|25||11||Denny Hamlin (P)||-1||166.783||63.062|
|32||34||Michael McDowell (P)||-38||163.148||166.988|