ThatsRacin

NASCAR: Fast stop puts Brad Keselowski in Victory Lane and, finally, Cup playoffs

After an hour-long delay because of lightning in the area, the Southern 500 field is led to the start by pole-sitter Denny Hamlin (11).
After an hour-long delay because of lightning in the area, the Southern 500 field is led to the start by pole-sitter Denny Hamlin (11). AP

Once again, it just wasn’t Kyle Larson’s night.

After the 26-year-old led more than 270 laps in the Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday night, a late caution proved to be his undoing. Larson lost the battle off pit road with 19 laps to go by a matter of inches to Brad Keselowski, and from there, Keselowski held off Joey Logano and Larson for his first NASCAR Cup Series win this season.

The most unfortunate part? As Keselowski and Logano battled over the final 15 laps, Larson couldn’t do anything to pull himself back.

Keselowski’s first win of the season will give him a solid boost with just one regular season race left before the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin, but for Larson, this is a crushing defeat. It’s now been almost a calendar year since Larson last one, and despite four runner-up finishes this season, he just hasn’t been able to close the gap.

And at this point in the year, he might not do so in 2018.

Race breakdown

Stage 1: Denny Hamlin started on the pole, but Kyle Larson — who began second — assumed the lead soon thereafter and led for more than three quarters of the stage. He made contact with Austin Dillon in the stage’s closing laps, but still finished with his second stage win this season.

Stage 2: Larson briefly lost the lead to Martin Truex Jr. midway through the stage, but an uncontrolled tire penalty sent Truex two laps back and gave Larson clean sailing. He ended up not only winning Stage 2 by a mile (he led by 17 seconds at one point), but managed to keep Truex down a lap with a last-second pass of Dillon.

Stage 3: After a nearly caution-free first two stages, the third was less kind — over the last 55 laps, there were several stoppages that prevented Larson from rebuilding a hearty lead. With 19 laps left, Brad Keselowski beat Kyle Larson off pit road, and then outdueled Joey Logano to notch his first victory of 2018.

Three who mattered

Brad Keselowski: He beat Larson off pit road by inches, maybe centimeters, but a lead with that few laps remaining was a nearly guaranteed ‘W.’

Kyle Larson: He dominated all night, leading at times by almost half a lap — and yet, he goes home with a third-place finish and no playoff boost.

Joey Logano: Second place isn’t what you ever hope for, especially not with a chance to win in the last few laps, but all things considered, it’s a solid finish for Logano as the playoffs kick off soon.

Observations

Lightning in the area (but no rain) delayed the start of the race 40 minutes, as the grandstands were twice cleared.

As has become tradition, the Southern 500 weekend at Darlington Raceway has also become NASCAR’s Throwback Weekend, where drivers sport vintage fire suits and paint schemes to honor historic drivers. Some of the favorites this year: Austin Dillon (Dale Earnhardt-themed), Denny Hamlin (his first paint scheme from 20 years ago), and William Byron (Jeff Gordon’s Rainbow Warriors-themed).

Jimmie Johnson, who is close to the playoff cutoff but still currently safe, had to leave the race early in Stage 3 when he lost oil pressure in his car. It was his fourth DNF of the season.

They said it

“He was flat out flyin’.” – Keselowski on Larson.

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