“Viva Las Vegas, baby,” Denny Hamlin exclaimed as he punched his ticket to the Round of 8.
The driver of the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota went 2-2 in winning the opening round races—first at Darlington Raceway and again on Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to keep rolling in the 2021 Playoffs.
Hamlin cycled to the lead on Lap 229 and led the final 39 circuits en route to his first win at the 1.5-mile track and the 46th of his career.
“I feel so good. I can’t tell you how good these next two weeks are going to be,” Hamlin said. "Especially with this crazy round coming up. We’ve just done a great job on this race track and getting it a lot better for me over the course of my career. 14 years of not really being that good. Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) and the whole FedEx team have been great – great ride with them. We’ve added another trophy to the trophy case and now we get to go and worry about the next round.”
Chase Elliott finished second followed by Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson.
With a win in the first stage and a 10th-place finish, Larson retained the series NASCAR Cup Series lead by 14 points over Hamlin, who earned an automatic transfer position into the Playoff's Round of 8 with the victory.
As many of the Cup Playoff drivers predicted, the South Point 400 would be the calmest in the Round of 12 with Talladega and the Charlotte Roval to follow. There were just four cautions—and only one for a racing incident when Joey Gase spun in Turn 2 on Lap 93 after a left rear wheel came off of the No. 15 car due to a part failure. Gase was taken to a local hospital for further evaluation.
Larson took the lead for the first time on Lap 40 when he used the apron to pass Hamlin. He won the first stage by 1.7-seconds over Kyle Busch but race strategy mired the No. 5 in traffic after leading 95 laps in the first two segments.
Hamlin grabbed the lead in the pits for the Lap 88 restart for Stage 2. Larson quickly regained the lead but his teammate William Byron took the Nos. 5 and 11 cars three-wide for the lead just before the third caution was triggered by Gase’s wreck.
Byron, who had started from the rear after multiple pre-race inspection failures, retained the lead for the Lap 99 restart—but it was short-lived as Larson regained the lead. Meanwhile, Byron pitted on Lap 132 with Elliott. An issue with the No. 24 team’s air gun forced crew chief Rudy Fugle to call an audible two-tire pit stop. He dropped to 23rd, one lap down.
Crew chief Cliff Daniels elected to keep Larson at the point until Lap 154. Hamlin inherited the lead and won Stage 2. Hamlin retained the lead out of the pits. His top competition—Larson restarted 19th—behind Byron, who received the lucky dog.
While the Hendrick Chevys attempted to charge forward, traffic and dirty air impeded the progress of Byron and Larson. Byron climbed up to fifth on Lap 197. He pitted with Elliott and Larson 15 laps later. Hamlin relinquished the lead for service on the next circuit turning the point over to Reddick. Byron raced back to fifth on Lap 225 before suffering from a right rear tire on Lap 225.
Austin Dillon, who had remained on the track and gained the lead, pitted on Lap 228 and Hamlin cycled up to the point. With the exception of Larson passing Joey Logano for 10th on Lap 245, the top 10 remained intact to the finish.
Although Elliott cut into Hamlin's lead significantly over the final 20 laps, the No. 11 Toyota crossed the line .442-seconds over the No. 9 Chevy.
“The last few laps it faded a little bit – getting a little tight, but overall I thought, in the long run, it was pretty good," Hamlin added. "It’s something that we really studied and worked on it, and glad all that hard work is paying off.”
“So happy for our FedEx Office Toyota team. Joe Gibbs Racing just gives us great race cars. That's what I'm so proud of is to drive for those guys. Can't thank them enough for everything they do. It feels so good to win in Vegas. Last couple of times I've been so close, just didn't have the right breaks. They dialed the car in great. Great to hold those guys off.”
Loose wheels and cut tires were persistent problems on Sunday and were responsible for dropping Byron and Hendrick teammate Alex Bowman below the current cut line for the Round of 8. Byron, who finished a lap down in 18th, enters next Sunday's race at Talladega four points behind eighth-place Brad Keselowski. Bowman was two laps down in 22nd and trails Keselowski by 13 points.
Christopher Bell has the biggest hill to climb after sustaining early damage in a collision with Kurt Busch's Chevrolet getting to pit road. Bell came home 24th, two laps down, and goes to Talladega 25 points below the cut line. Kevin Harvick, who finished ninth, is 10th on the Playoff grid, seven points behind Keselowski.