Darlington rundown: Kyle Larson wins. How did NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers fare?

Tribune Content Agency

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.

Denny Hamlin

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.

Kevin Harvick

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.

Christopher Bell

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.

Kyle Busch

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
10 43 Erik Jones 8.533 164.655 10.81
11 8 Kyle Busch (P) 8.887 163.164 16.449
12 22 Joey Logano (P) 8.969 164.281 10.61
13 16 AJ Allmendinger 9.432 162.905 10.844
14 10 Aric Almirola 11.269 162.34 10.01
15 14 Chase Briscoe 12.093 162.63 9.576
16 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (P) 12.742 161.95 11.277
17 42 Carson Hocevar(i) 12.991 162.888 10.844
18 19 Martin Truex Jr. (P) 13.444 163.196 11.311
19 4 Kevin Harvick (P) 13.558 163.936 10.243
20 3 Austin Dillon 14.39 162.856 10.343
21 54 Ty Gibbs # 14.99 162.598 10.544
22 7 Corey LaJoie 15.157 163.375 9.843
23 20 Christopher Bell (P) -1 168.071 71.878
24 31 Justin Haley -1 162.646 12.679
25 11 Denny Hamlin (P) -1 166.783 63.062
26 38 Todd Gilliland -1 162.807 43.943
27 51 Ryan Newman -2 161.053 11.378
28 41 Ryan Preece -3 161.006 12.412
29 77 Ty Dillon -3 160.858 79.011
30 15 JJ Yeley(i) -5 161.971 11.444
31 2 Austin Cindric -6 163.299 72.471
32 34 Michael McDowell (P) -38 163.148 166.988
33 48 Alex Bowman -45 162.662
34 99 Daniel Suarez -47 163.153 54.821
35 21 Harrison Burton -49 162.528 11.244
36 78 BJ McLeod -157 158.571