By Holly Cain
NASCAR Wire Service
Kyle Larson left little to chance Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway leading a race best 103 laps and pulling away to a convincing 3.156-second win over former NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski to win the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube – his first victory in two years.
Larson, 28, of Elk Grove, Calif. became the quickest winner in Hendrick Motorsports long and esteemed history, taking the checkered flag in only his fourth start in the team’s famous No. 5 Chevrolet.
It was a hard-earned and highly-emotional win for Larson, who missed most of last season serving a suspension for using racially-insensitive language. The popular young Californian was reinstated by NASCAR in the offseason after following a course of rehabilitation and sensitivity training. He came into the season with the Hendrick Motorsports opportunity, grateful and ready to redeem himself.
Larson was exuberant speaking to the team on the radio while driving under the checkered flag as the race winner. He did celebratory burnouts on the backstretch and then again under the flag-stand on the frontstretch telling his Hendrick Motorsports team on the car radio, “What a car, what an opportunity. Thank you, guys.”
Just as Larson was finishing his live television interview, Keselowski ran across the infield grass to shake Larson’s hand and congratulate him on a powerful race performance.
“I’m just really happy for him, I know he’s been through a lot in the last year and he’s a good kid who I’ve known for a little while and has a good family and I’m just happy to see him bounce back,” the Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski said.
“He was really fast – had a lot of speed in all the lanes which was really impressive, usually you have to make a compromise, but they were really good. If Kyle Larson wasn’t here, we would have had a dominant day,” Keselowski added with a smile.
It was a highly competitive race from green to checkered flag with 27 lead changes among 12 different drivers. Five drivers led at least 20 laps. Keselowski won Stage 1 and Larson won Stage 2 – the first stage victories for both drivers this season.
In all, Larson led a race best six times, working his Chevrolet back to the front no matter the challenge, ultimately pacing the field for the last 30 laps en route to his seventh career win. It is his first on a 1.5-mile track after nine previous runner-up finishes on mile-and-a-half venues.
“It was such an awesome car,” Larson said. “Cliff (Daniels, crew chief) and everybody did a great job preparing this piece. It was so much fun to drive. I could go wherever I wanted to. I know we had a really good car once we would kind of get single-filed out; but just drafting early in the run was tough.
“But thank you so much Mr. Hendrick, Jeff Gordon and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for the amazing opportunity I’ve been gifted. Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet everybody at the engine shop. Thank you so much for all the hard work. This is definitely special.”
Larson and Keselowski managed to use the final portion of the race to get around the full-on Joe Gibbs Racing team, whose drivers combined to lead 53 laps on the afternoon. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch – a Las Vegas native – and Denny Hamlin finished third and fourth. Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney was fifth, his first top 10 of the season.
Two more Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, driven by Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell were sixth and seventh, followed by last week’s winner, Hendrick Motorsport’s William Byron. Team Penske driver Joey Logano and Richard Petty Motorsport’s driver Erik Jones rounded out the top 10.
Larson’s teammate Chase Elliott – the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion – finished 13th after overcoming several problems. His team had a jack issue in the pits and contact with another car made for multiple long pit stops.
“We were good on the short run, just didn’t quite have enough long run speed,” said Denny Hamlin, who led 47 laps on the day. “Certainly I thought it was a good start, we’ll just gather our data and try to figure out what we need to do to be better when we come back here and it really counts.”
Hamlin and Keselowski, who are still looking for their first wins of the 2021 season sit atop the championship points standings. Hamlin leads by 38 points over Keselowski and Larson is third.
The series heads to Phoenix Raceway for next Sunday’s Instacart 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – always an important race as the one-mile Phoenix track is where the series races for the championship in the Nov. 7 season-finale.