DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Another NASCAR playoff and another show of strength from Hendrick Motorsports.
A week after drivers Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman missed out on the 16-team playoffs, the powerhouse organization made a formidable statement about their championship chances with Kyle Larson's win in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday night.
Larson, the 2021 Cup Series champion, advances to the round of 12 no matter what happens in the next two first-round races at Kansas and Bristol. Larson's teammate William Byron, tied coming as the playoff's top seed, finished fourth to keep his chances of advancing strong.
“A great way to start the playoffs for Hendrick Motorsports,” said Jeff Andrews, the company's president and GM. “I like (how) across the company that the performance was there.”
Throw in that Elliott finished eighth at Darlington as the No. 9 competes for an owner's championship — “Which is a huge deal to Mr. H,” Larson's crew chief Cliff Daniels said — and no one's hanging their heads at the Hendrick compound.
“The way we’re all working together and the way Mr. H (owner Rick Hendrick) just keeps it on the rails and keeps us going, it’s a lot of fun,” Daniels said.
Should Larson or Byron raise the championship trophy at Phoenix in two months, it would be the 15th title for Hendrick drivers — and third in four years.
Larson collected the organization's 299th Cup Series victory at Darlington and all four Hendrick drivers are on high alert to achieve the milestone win as soon as next week at Kansas.
“I think all four of us would want to be the one to do it,” said Larson, who won at Darlington for the first time. “But really, I think 300 (wins) is just a super big number. For me, I’m going to be just as happy to see William, Chase or Alex win No. 300 for Rick as I would be for myself to win.”
Larson didn't have the strongest car or the most perfect trip around Darlington, but used determination and good timing to stay near the top and pounce when the moment was right.
He brushed Darlington's wall several times in running near the top and was able to take the lead from Tyler Reddick out of the pits with 55 laps to go.
Larson moved away after a final restart with 31 laps left and finished in front of playoff drivers Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher and Hendrick teammate Byron.
While Hendrick drivers soared, other multi-car playoff teams struggled. Denny Hamlin led a race-best 177 of 367 laps yet fell back due to issues in the pits and a late accident to finish 25th.
Hamlin's Joe Gibbs racing teammate Martin Truex, tied with Byron for the top playoff seed, never found a rhythm and ended 18th. A third JGR playoff entry in pole-sitter Christopher Bell was part of a late wreck and ended 23rd.
Elliott, who won the Cup Series crown in 2020, said at Darlington on Saturday he's just as engaged in running for his title this season as Larson and Byron are for theirs.
Elliott acknowledged those outside the driver's playoffs are “irrelevant” to most outsiders. “But that's just not the case,” he said. “So it's a tough balance. I want to be better, I want to prepare for next year and use some of these races to make myself better. But it's not a throwaway. We're still racing for something.”
Bowman also missed time this season due to injury. He was on his way to a strong finish when he and Daniel Suarez crashed with about 50 laps left while Bowman tried to block his competitor from passing.
The Hendrick performances at Darlington was validation after the disappointment of Elliott and Bowman missing the playoffs, said Andrews, the Hendrick executive.
“We had a lot of adversity thrown at us with two injuries” to Elliott and Bowman, Andrews said. “The performances we got into the summer, those things don't come back with a flip of the switch, it's a lot of hard work and belief in each other.”
“Tonight,” he continued, “was where we expect to be as a company.”
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