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Playoff future looking up for Denny Hamlin after LVMS win

Updated September 26, 2021 - 9:44 pm

With the possible exception of Matt Jaskol, the Xfinity Series driver from Las Vegas who skydived onto the starting grid before Saturday’s preliminary race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, everybody in NASCAR was looking up at dominant Kyle Larson.

They still are. But after Sunday’s South Point 400 at LVMS, Denny Hamlin suddenly isn’t craning his neck nearly as far.

“It feels so good to win in Vegas,” Hamlin said after finishing 0.422 seconds ahead of Chase Elliott to win the South Point 400, his 46th career victory and first in 21 races at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval.

“Last couple of times I’ve been so close, just didn’t have the right breaks. Great to hold those guys off,” Hamlin said.

After going winless during the regular season, the driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota started the second tier of playoffs the same way he did the first — by winning and locking up a berth in the next round before unpredictable races at Talladega, Alabama, and the quirky road course at Charlotte.

Hamlin now trails Larson by 14 points in the playoff standings with teammate Kyle Busch of Las Vegas, who finished third Sunday, 22 points behind the leader.

“It does, especially with this crazy round coming up,” Hamlin said when asked if the breakthrough win provided a sense of relief. “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 (after) 14 years of not really being that good.”

Elliott was the only driver who had a chance to run down Hamlin after the final green-flag pit stops but came up a little short.

“Wish we could have won tonight, then I would have felt good about it,” the reigning Cup Series champ said about being the Las Vegas bridesmaid with the prospect of racing in high-speed packs on the big Talladega oval looming large.

“I feel like our entire team has been really performing at a high level the past three or four weeks — we’ve had some pace at some tracks where we haven’t been really good, but just not a lot of good results,” Elliott said after posting his fourth top 10 in 11 races at LVMS.

”So tonight it was really nice to come to a place where we’ve had some speed but not necessarily the finishes.”

Hamlin led seven times for a race-high 137 of 267 laps. But in the early going, it was Larson who appeared to be the class of the field.

The regular-season champion appeared well on his way to his seventh victory of 2021 and his second in four playoff races before the Hendrick Motorsports team kept him on the track longer than the other pacesetters before a midrace pit stop.

“We just did a poor job executing and got ourselves trapped a lap down … on old tires for half the last stage and hard to battle our way through,” said the championship leader, who wound up finishing an uncharacteristic 10th after leading 95 laps.

Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron also ran into tough luck, battling from the back twice to briefly take the lead before suffering a late tire problem and finishing 18th — four points below the elimination line heading into Talladega.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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