Kyle Larson wins NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas

By Alex Andrejev
The Charlotte Observer/TNS
Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 7, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Kyle Larson didn’t compete in a NASCAR competition for almost a full year, but it took him just four short races in 2021 to return to Victory Lane.

Larson dominated Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his first win of the season and his first victory driving the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

“I didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again,” said Larson, who gave a shoutout to team owner Rick Hendrick. “To get this awesome opportunity with Hendrick Motorsports, with Mr. H taking a massive chance on me and then going out there and being strong all year has been great ... Today we put it all together.”

Brad Keselowski finished second and Kyle Busch finished in third.

Larson controlled the leaderboard Sunday, winning the second stage and leading a race-high 103 laps of the 267-lap race.

After 27 lead changes, Larson made his final move back to the front of the pack on Lap 238, where he was able to put three seconds between him and Keselowski at the checkered flag. Keselowski walked over to Larson to congratulate him after the race, as did Bubba Wallace.

“I’ve known him for a little while,” Keselowski said on FOX. “He’s got a good family and just happy to see him bounce back.”

Larson missed a majority of last season after he was suspended by NASCAR for using a racial slur during a virtual racing event as the sport was postponed for the pandemic. His former sponsors and Chip Ganassi Racing team released him in the wake of the incident, so Larson was out of a ride for the remainder of the 2020 season. He completed sensitivity training, stepped out of the spotlight, issued multiple apologies and ultimately returned to competition this year with the new No. 5 team for Hendrick Motorsports.

“So proud of you, man,” No. 5 crew chief Cliff Daniels said on the team radio after the race. “God has been so good to this team. It’s been a hell of journey for all of us.”

Larson’s win marks the second Hendrick driver to post a victory in the first four races this year. Both Larson and last weekend’s winner William Byron are locked into playoffs for the four-car team. Byron finished in the top-10 (eighth) at Las Vegas, while other Hendrick drivers Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman didn’t fair as well.

Bowman had to pit under green from the top-10 for a flat tire in the final stage, then had to serve a pass-through for a commitment line violation that sent him to the back of the pack. He finished in 27th, but earned points with top-10 finishes in both stages, along with Larson and Byron.

Elliott had a fast car in the opening laps, but his No. 9 Chevrolet wiggled mid-pack on the outside and he slid spinning backward through the field in the final stage. Elliott was able to save it, as other cars dodged him, but the car suffered earlier damage to the right side jackpost that occurred during a pit stop in the first 50 laps when a jack got stuck under the car. With the damage compounded and late-race spin, Elliott finished 13th.

Despite Kevin Harvick’s points dominance this year, the No. 4 team had limited luck in Las Vegas, as did Stewart-Haas Racing teammates. Harvick started on the pole but quickly fell out of the top-10 in the opening laps, reporting the car was tight as the looser setups of Brad Keselowski and Larson ran up front early. Harvick also had to pit for repairs to his left front fender in the first stage, which was won by Keselowski.

Harvick didn’t make it up to the top-10 for the second stage finish either, nor did any other SHR drivers. A left front tire on the No. 10 car driven by Aric Almirola went down in the second stage, which sent Almirola into the wall. He pit for repairs, but eventually exited the race early, adding to his string of disappointing finishes to open the 2021 season. Almirola, who made the playoffs last year and won the first Duel at Daytona this year, finished 34th, 17th and 30th in the opening three races of the season. His latest finish, in 38th at Las Vegas, won’t help him in points.

“It has been a terrible year,” Almirola told PRN. “We got off to a great start winning the Duel and nothing has been good since then. It’s got me really down.”

Stewart-Haas drivers Chase Briscoe and Cole Custer finished in 21st and 25th, respectively. Harvick was 20th.