By Holly Cain
NASCAR Wire Service
LAS VEGAS – As he crossed the Las Vegas Motor Speedway finish line to claim the South Point 400 trophy, Denny Hamlin screamed into his team radio, “Viva Las Vegas.” And indeed, it was that kind of night for the perennial championship contender, who led a race best 137 of the 267 laps to earn his first Las Vegas victory in 20 starts and take an automatic bid into the next round of the Playoffs.
The 40-year old Virginian edged reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott by .442-seconds. Elliott cut into Hamlin’s lead on every one of the closing 10 laps, taking full advantage of traffic, but was ultimately unable to catch Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Hamlin’s JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. finished third and fourth with Penske Racing’s Ryan Blaney rounding out the Top-5 – all Playoff drivers.
Tyler Reddick, who just missed advancing to this three-race Playoff round by a mere two-points last week, finished sixth after running among the Top-3 for much of the late race laps.
Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick and regular season champion, Kyle Larson rounded out the Top-10. Keselowski, Harvick and Larson are also championship eligible.
Hamlin led seven different times, won Stage 2 and took the lead for good with 39 laps remaining – facing that challenge from Elliott in the waning laps of a what was a relatively clean race – only one yellow flag outside of the competition caution and two stage breaks.
The only other caution for an on-track incident came out for a single car accident involving driver Joey Gase, who whose No. 15 Chevrolet lost a tire and made heavy impact with the wall. He was examined in the Infield Care Center but transported to an area hospital for a precautionary exam.
“It feels so good to win in Vegas, last couple times I’ve been so close but just didn’t have the right breaks, but they got the car great and great to hold those guys off,” said Hamlin, who earned his 46th career victory and becomes the first driver to officially earn a shot into the Playoff Round of 8.
“I’m so happy to not have to worry about the next two weeks, but I am a professional and I will work just as hard each and every week to win.”
Obviously disappointed not to win, Elliott was still enthusiastic about his runner-up finish – his 12th top five of the season – rallying from a pit stop strategy that put him a lap down at one point.
“We were really close, just not quite close enough,” Elliott said. “Denny did a really good job controlling the gap to me and he was having a hard time [lapping] with the 21 (Matt DiBenedetto).
“Super close. Really proud of our NAPA team and I feel like we’ve been performing at a really nice level the last three or four weeks, just haven’t had great results to show for it.
“Proud of the effort tonight and looking forward to the next two [races]. It’s going to be wild.”
Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Larson certainly looked like the driver to beat early on. He led 95 laps and won his series best 15th Stage win in the opening portion of the night, but a different pit strategy put him a lap down mid-race and he never fully recovered to challenge for the lead again.
While Hamlin earned the automatic bid into the next round of the Playoffs, Larson still leads the championship standings – 22 points over Kyle Busch.
With his seventh-place finish Keselowski moved into the eighth position in the standings, with races at Talladega, Ala. and the Charlotte ROVAL remaining to determine which eight drivers move on in the championship battle.
Hendrick Motorsports William Byron, who suffered a tire problem late in the race, finished 18th and is now four points below the cutoff line. Even with his Top-10, Harvick remains ninth in the standings – still looking for his first victory of the season.
Hendrick driver Alex Bowman finished 22nd and is 13 points behind Keselowski and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell finished 25th, two laps down Sunday night fighting through several setbacks. He is 25 points out of that transfer position.
The second race in this Playoff NASCAR Cup Series round is the YellaWood 500 next Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Keselowski won at Talladega this April. Hamlin is the defending Playoff race winner there.