Sunday night was a tale of two different teams and two different strategies at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Kyle Larson had the dominant car early. Denny Hamlin was money when it mattered.
Throughout 2021, the near-flawless execution by Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5 team has elevated Larson to a legitimate champion contender. But Cliff Daniels’ decision to wait on a potential late caution and not to pit his driver until Lap 153—with just seven laps remaining in the second stage of the South Point 400—wasn’t worth the gamble.
“We stayed out and had to do the wave around,” Larson said following the race. “I wasn’t on fresh tires and stuck in traffic. Everyone is fighting so hard back there to run their race that I just got kind of stuck. Not beat around, but just stuck and having to race. It’s just hard.
“We were able to fight back for a top-10 and come away with an OK finish.”
Larson was fortunate to recover with that “OK finish.” Mired in traffic after dropping off of the lead lap, Larson was forced to compete deep in the field with drivers a lot more desperate than the current points leader.
“(Ryan) Blaney got through there better,” Larson said of the No. 12 Team Penske driver, whose crew was initially mirroring the strategy of the No. 5 team. “I got stuck around the No. 42 (Ross Chastain), so he was able to get clear and get away and have a good finish. Just being on older tires and having to battle through all of them was difficult.
“You forget how hard everybody races back there; it’s pretty wild. There were moments where I thought I was going to end up crashed or get frustrated and run myself into the wall. But we were able to mentally fight through it and come away with a top-10.”
Still, Larson sacrificed valuable stage points and the potential for another win. He entered Las Vegas with a 35-point buffer over Hamlin entering the Playoffs, but the miscue enabled the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team to close within 14 points of the No. 5 Hendrick squad in a battle that has escalated through the summer months.
Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, knew the Hendrick cars were dominant with the 550-horsepower package. He witnessed Larson’s ability to amass a 4.5-second advantage over the No. 11 Toyota at the end of Stage 1. To offer Hamlin a fighting chance, Gabehart knew he needed a different strategy. Pitting during the third caution, following Joey Gase’s spin, offered the team that opportunity.
“I was confident we were doing the right thing,” said Gabehart. “It was just really at a critical point in the stage where it wasn't obvious that it opened a window for everyone. But it turned out that that's the way it played out. That was right at the edge of our fuel window. After you run a few caution (laps), it's going to put us well within it.
“It's rare when you can look to one singular point in the race and that that was the turning point in the race, but it really was. Hendrick cars are always strong at these tracks. I'm not saying we weren't good. We were certainly capable. That gave us the leg up that we needed to take control of the race.”
Hamlin went on to win the second stage and the race. Hendrick’s critical error enabled Hamlin to not only lock into the Round of 8, but shifted momentum in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team’s favor—an intangible factor that could prove more valuable than gaining 21 points on an arch rival.
Sure, Larson’s cushion is 46 points over ninth-place Joey Logano entering the Crapshoot 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, but Daniels never should have put his driver in this position in the first place.
“It’s good to go to Talladega and be that far up,” said Larson, who has just two top-10 finishes at the 2.66-mile track and an average finish of 23.5. “I would have liked to have been up more. I feel like we gave up at least 15 points today with the second stage.
“That’s a bummer, but we’ll fight through it and hopefully avoid issues at Talladega.”
Meanwhile, Hamlin enters this weekend’s race at Talladega as the defending winner. No, he didn’t win during the regular 2021 season, but to deliver victories in the opening races of both rounds has been a game-changer. With the Las Vegas victory in his pocket, Hamlin has absolutely no worries until NASCAR re-racks the drivers after the Charlotte Roval.
Sunday’s victory will also allow Gabehart to sleep better at night—at least for the next two weeks.
“It's just such an advantage to win any race in the Playoffs, but certainly the first race of any round because, especially this round, you look at Talladega and Charlotte, you can't stress enough,” Gabehart said. “Every one of these race teams are professional so they deal with the stress and the pressure. They handle it. But it's there. It exists. You can't look past it, it's real. We've only had to deal with that for what will be two of the first six races of the Playoffs.
“Certainly our team's been really capable all year long. Every metric other than the win column has been astounding for our team. It's really been our best year together thus far. You stay up front as much as we have, the wins are going to finally come. They're coming at the right time.”