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NASCAR at Darlington: Hamlin’s first win of 2021; Larson dominant until late caution

Darlington, SC, Sept 5/21 (by John Davison): Denny Hamlin added a fourth notch to his Darlington belt, winning the 2021 Cook Out Southern 500 after a spirited late-race duel with runner-up Kyle Larson. Hamlin led 146 of the 367 laps, with Larson having led for ten more laps than the winner.

Four playoff drivers dropped below the 'cut line', with Michael McDowell, Kyle Busch, William Byron and Chase Elliott crashing during the race, McDowell on only the fifteenth lap. All four will need to make strong showings in the next two races to avoid elimination at the end of this three-race round at Bristol.

"Southern 500, it's a big win. I love this race track. It's by far my favorite race track," said Hamlin. "He (Kyle Larson) drove it in past the limit of the cars and the tires. I knew he was coming. I was a little bit conservative on that last lap because I had that four-car-length lead. I didn't think it was going [to] go that deep, but yeah, still a great race. It's been back and forth with me and him most of the year. He's just been a little bit faster on these type of race tracks, and luckily the caution came when it did and the strategy worked out great for the team, but man, I'm really happy.

"Now we get to go have fun these next two weeks. Can't thank this whole team enough. They deserve a win. We've been so strong all year. They deserve to be in victory lane today."

Kyle Larson drove right to Hamlin's rear bumper on the last lap, with smoke pouring off his tires in a 'video game' move: "Yeah. Yeah. I kind of -- we got to the white, and I was like, well, I haven't been able to gain on him now, I'm going to try something. Honestly got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside, but gave everything I had.

"I didn't want to wreck him, I just wanted to try to get to his outside there, but he did a great job not really making any mistakes during the last run, and I was having to push really hard in second to try and just stay with him," Larson finished.

Once Larson had taken the lead on lap 122, he dominated the running and it looked like no one had a chance to beat him. Running the high line for the most part, he took more chances and he had more speed than everyone else. His downfall came on the second-last caution on lap 320. Larson had already pitted under green and when this yellow flew he was back in fourth place while Hamlin was in front. Despite having pitted only about 20 laps earlier, all the front runners came in for fresh tires again – but this left Larson taking this restart in the high side of the front row alongside Hamlin , who had the better starting spot.

Once racing resumed, Hamlin held onto his lead over Larson – and Larson drove as hard as he could to catch him – perhaps too hard. As the final laps counted down, Hamlin was able to drive smoothly ahead of a hard-charging Larson but Larson could never close up into a passing position. As the race came to its conclusion it seemed evident that Larson had burned up his tires and that he had lost his hope of getting past Hamlin. All he was left with was his final desperate smoking charge right up into Hamlin’s back bumper on the final lap.

PHOTO DARLINGTON NCS LARSONLarson's car sparking after slamming into Hamlin on the final desperate lap (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

While this result reinforces Hamlin’s place as a contender in the playoffs, Larson’s five race wins so far this year, plus his take-no-holds attack at the Darlington track, tells that both of these drivers are favourites to win the championship at Phoenix.

Afterwards, Hamlin, for whom this was his first win of the 2021 season, was understandably happy and he praised his Joe Gibbs crew for continuing to give him such a good car. Another Joe Gibbs driver, Kyle Busch, had crashed out of the race and he was bitter, blaming the car which he called a piece of ‘s**t’. Clearly, if you consider Busch’s record as a former Cup champion and a dominant force in the Truck and Xfinity Series, this is surprising. If Busch can achieve such good results in his own trucks but is struggling so much in the Gibbs Cup cars, perhaps it is time for Busch to move on – perhaps to expand his personal KBM truck team to add a Cup entry for Kyle himself to drive.

The second race in the 10-race playoff eliminations and the second in the three-race Round of 16 will be at the 3/4-mile Richmond oval next Saturday night, September 11th.

• Click HERE for the Race Results

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